Full text: Pupil barrister’s brilliant #OneBarOneVoice speech

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23 Essex Street pupil barrister Hannah Evans was the star of Saturday’s ‘One Bar One Voice’ event after revealing the reality of life on the Bar’s bottom rung for “ordinary” people.

The full text of Evans’ brilliant speech — in which the comprehensive school-educated barrister laid bare the financial hardships she faces — is below.

Life at the very junior end of the criminal Bar is tough. Make no mistake.

It’s tough to get here. It’s tough to stay here. It’s tough in a way we (most of us, at least) expected: long hours, difficult clients, challenging briefs. But it’s tough in another way too – financially. And that’s something that perhaps isn’t always fully appreciated by others:

• Sometimes more senior members of the profession don’t always appreciate how difficult things can be financially. Many of them came to the Bar at a time when grants were available for higher education and Crown Court trials and junior briefs were plentiful.

• Those practising a branch of law that’s not publicly funded don’t always appreciate what things are like at the junior end of the criminal Bar. They are properly remunerated for their services (as they should be) and find it difficult to believe the sums we are paid for our work.

• As for the public, I’ve lost count of the number of times that people, on discovering that I’m a barrister, assume I’m earning a small fortune. It’s very much the public perception that you must be: after all, you went to a good school no doubt, then a posh university, now you swan around court in your wig and gown and have fancy legal arguments with others like you that no-one else understands or cares about. You’re milking the system. Out for what you can get. But we know that nothing could be further from the truth: their assumptions are wrong on so many levels.

• Even those trying to ‘break into’ the profession don’t always comprehend what it will be like for them at the junior end of the criminal Bar- if they get here. They’re almost certainly told how difficult it will be: “when it comes to money, things aren’t what they used to be”. I know I was told that by many when I was completing my mini-pupillages. But you assume at that stage that, while things may not be quite the way they used to be, you’ll make a living. After all, the people warning you are managing to get by. You assume that you will too and you don’t worry too much, not realising until you’re at the Bar yourself just how tough things are.

When you are here, experiencing the difficulties for yourself, you tell yourself that you might be struggling to pay the bills now, racking up debt by the day, but it will be worthwhile. You’re doing it for a reason. You’re gaining the necessary experience, forging the right connections, and then those Crown Court briefs will start coming your way. You don’t expect riches. Speaking for myself – and I’m sure every other junior barrister at the criminal Bar – I did not enter this profession for the money. But I did – I do – expect to be paid enough to make doing the job I love a viable career option.

Of course, with the cuts this government plan to impose that won’t be the case at all. A career that is currently difficult to sustain will become nigh on impossible for people like me.

What do I mean by “people like me”? I came to the Bar from an “ordinary” background. I attended a comprehensive school on what was once the largest council estate in Europe. At the time I left, about 23% of pupils were leaving there with 5 GCSEs graded A*-C. By 2012 – the year I began my pupillage – this had fallen to 16.9%.

I got my 5 A*s-Cs (and a few more besides) and moved onto my A-levels, along with about 25 of my classmates. I did well at A-level and with the support of a handful of teachers and family members applied to Oxford. Unsurprisingly, when I was accepted, one teacher who quite openly told me that “Oxford isn’t for people like [me]” was not one of those who lined up to congratulate me.

Funded by my student loan I went up to Oxford where I spent a wonderful 3 years studying law, assisted occasionally by various collections prizes and scholarships. Not so wonderfully, I left with a small mountain of debt – and this was before the £9,000-a-year fees were introduced…

After graduation, I moved immediately onto Bar School here in London. I was unsure for the first few months after being accepted whether I’d actually be able to attend. There was no way I could fund the cost of the BPTC (as it had then just been renamed), let alone living costs on top. Thankfully, I was awarded one of the many scholarships that this very Inn bestows each year and it was enough to fund my course. The Inn also provided my living accommodation during my year at Bar School. As for my living costs, they were covered by a bank loan, tipping me even further into debt.

I applied for pupillage during Bar School and – miraculously it seemed! – was offered a place at a London set. Of course, pupillage now being what it is, I had to take an obligatory year out before starting. The dream would have been to travel – see new places, try new and exciting things: the reality was very different. For largely financial reasons, I moved back home and lived with my mum. I tried hard to find a job that would have me for a few months, knowing that I’d be leaving to really start my career very shortly. Luckily, one materialised and kept me afloat until I returned to London.

And then: pupillage. Again, I was fortunate. I was accepted at a good set that by the standards of criminal pupillages provided a generous pupillage award. Quite honestly, as much as I so badly wanted that place when I applied, I would not have been able to apply had chambers not offered the award they did. Indeed, there were chambers I did not apply to because the pupillage award they offered was the bare minimum and I knew I couldn’t afford to live on that.

The effect of this government’s cuts will be that fewer and fewer chambers will be able to pay such generous awards to their pupils. That is, if they’re able to take pupils on at all. This means less – if any – people like me in this job; less people without a private income or family to support them; less people from ordinary backgrounds.

Now I’m a third six. At the very beginning of my life at the Bar. What’s the next chapter? What are my prospects for a successful career? It’s something that nearly all people at my stage of their professional lives ask themselves I imagine. But for junior barristers – particularly those in my position – the question is more poignant.

As I’ve said, financially, life at the criminal Bar is difficult in the early years. Let me give you an example. A trial fee in the Magistrates’ Court can be as little as £80. That £80 may represent a full day at court (9-5pm): in court for the trial; in conference with your client before, during and after court; in discussion with your opponent or the witness service or Probation… Out of that £80 comes your travel costs, unless you’re fortunate enough to be reimbursed your travel by chambers or by your Instructing Solicitors. Then there’s tax to deal with.

Sometimes, many junior barristers find that they are paying to work: they earn less than it costs them to get to court! With train prices the way they are, you don’t have to travel very far before what you’re being paid for your first appearance or your mention is subsumed by travel costs. I can think of no other word for that than “perverse”. We are professional people doing a difficult job and we deserve adequate recompense. It is worth stressing again that I did not come into this job to make money. It’s been clear for many years that the criminal Bar is not the route to riches. If money was my motivation I’d have gone to the City, or down another of the well-paying avenues open to me when I graduated. Indeed, I’d have gone as soon as I got on my feet and received my first fee and realised just how bad things were going to be! But I, and others like me, resist the lure of other lucrative careers because we are committed to seeing justice done. Not just a hackneyed phrase for us: it’s what we work at day in, day out.

Our reward? Late rent payments, and an inability to pay bills or buy that new suit or book we so desperately need. These are facts of life for us at the junior end. And when you don’t have parents that can offer financial support, or a husband or wife to help you out, or savings you can dip into when times are hard, you have one option: you take a long hard look in the mirror and ask, very honestly, if this is a life you can really sustain. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had this conversation with myself. “How much longer can you do this?” The answer at the moment? “I’m not sure; it’s tough; hang in there”. The answer if this government gets its way? “Not much longer”.

The most frustrating thing is that this soul-searching is not borne out of disillusion with the job itself. On the contrary, I love this job. Even with its long hours and difficult clients! But love of the job does not pay the bills. The simple reality is that I can barely survive earning what I currently do. I will not be able to survive if the governments ‘reforms’ are implemented.

Speaking of the government, a friend of mine said to me a few weeks ago that I should consider myself its poster girl. Rather taken aback I asked what on earth he meant. He said that I represented everything this government lauded: through hard work and determination, I had come from an ordinary background into this wonderful profession, once considered the preserve of the elite. I am just the sort of person they want to hold up, to encourage, he said. How odd, then, that they seem committed to doing everything they can to ensuring that people like me – their poster girl – never get to the Bar in the future, and that those of us who worked so hard to get here cannot stay.

Speech courtesy of the Bar Council.

Image by Ben Denison: more of his photos of the OneBarOneVoice event are on Flickr.