Amid “Heartache, Depression and Personal Bankruptcy”, Are We Finally Seeing The End Of The Criminal Bar?

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By Alex Aldridge on

Last night at the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) dinner at Middle Temple Hall, CBA chair Max Hill QC delivered what must rank as one of the bleakest speeches in the history of the legal profession.

According to Hill, the barristers’ role within the criminal justice system is becoming increasingly less viable, the government is “obsessed by money”, and criminal barristers (89% of whom are willing to strike partly due to delays in payment from the Legal Services Commission) face “heartache, depression and personal bankruptcy”. The speech is published in full below.

Of course, the criminal bar has been in trouble for some time now, with earnings for those at its junior end having fallen to embarrassingly low levels. To give you a flavour, here is an extract from a devastating 2009 article by former criminal barrister Alex Deane (the article is now hidden deep behind Legal Week’s paywall).

“Don’t go to the Criminal Bar. I can’t put it strongly enough. Don’t do it. It is a mug’s game…It’s not a proper job. It’s a hobby, and a pleasant one for those with an independent income – but you simply cannot make a living from it in the first four or five years…

“I can attest from personal experience – and the experience of many people I know – that many barristers who have been in practice for two or three years will regularly only receive £100 a week. Once you factor in tax and expenses, it’s not just a joke that you’d be better off on benefits – it’s genuinely true.”

Since Deane wrote that article, the signs are that the decline could have become terminal as the profession prepares for huge legal aid cuts. Nichola Higgins, former chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee, told me yesterday: “Many junior criminal barristers are now on less than £100 a week, with, for the first time in my experience, some facing gaps in their diary where they are not in court. I think the Bar will shrink.”

Here is the text of Hill’s speech:

“Who are the guardians of the public interest, the gatekeepers for access to justice and the protectors of the rights of the individual in British society? Politicians like to think it is they who stand for Joe Public, and they who hold greedy lawyers to account. But that is not the truth now, if it ever was before.

We at the criminal Bar uphold the public interest in access to justice and the maintenance of a proper criminal justice system, whilst it is the Government who are obsessed by money.

I came into this job, when elected as Vice Chairman two years ago, knowing it would not be easy. I knew that, against a background of financial recession, the new Government would implement the three-year plan for defence fee cuts announced in the dying days of the old Government. I knew that the current administration was set on carving up the publicly-funded legal landscape.

But I did not know that there would be such heartache, depression and personal bankruptcy caused by the wanton failure of central Government to shore up the Legal Services Commission in such a way that they might pay us in reasonable time for concluded cases.

I did not know that criminal barristers would email, ring or meet me to tell how they couldn’t pay their tax in January, because the earnings-basis assessment for tax produced a payable sum which exceeded last year’s profit, and which far outweighed the actual payments received in the current year, because the LSC was keeping them waiting month after month. Neither did I know that the tale would be just as bad on the prosecution side.

“Our campaign to ensure that wealthy defendants with frozen assets need not and should not be a drain on the legal aid fund has continued throughout the year. So when Government says that we lawyers just want more money from them, our answer is we want less, in the sense that we should take these high value cases out of legal aid altogether. It makes sense, and the country should be made to understand what the Government continues to resist.

“In these and other areas, the time has come to bypass our political masters. If they won’t listen to us, let us go to the public, because that is where governments are vulnerable. Our causes are just.

“In all things, I say we should do what we do so well in court already, every day. Fight without fear or favour.”