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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.

21 Comments

Sandman

If somebody is willing to do a days work for £80 then it strongly suggests that there either is not enough paid work to go round the number of available barristers.

The government is only trying to fulfill its mandate to find savings by making cuts. If the Bar is serious about going back to the days of a reasonable standard of living for its juniors, the only solution is to make cuts of its own – to the number of entrants to the profession. The legal aid rate will have to respond to a falling supply of barristers.

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Yet another barrister

Sandman, don’t be an idiot. There is no free market here – these are legal aid rates, fixed by the only employer there is for this work. It’s £80 or nothing. Until now, barristers have been prepared to do the day’s work for £80 in the hope that some of the slightly better paid work will be theirs the next day, or the next year. With the Government’s proposals, they will know that hope is vain, and the defendant in that £80 trial will go unrepresented.

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Evan Price

As a result of the cab rank rule, it is not simply a case of ‘willing’ to do a days work for a particular fee – it is only where the fee is not ‘adequate’ that a barrister can refuse work on that ground – and the ‘fee’ provided by the state from legal aid is deemed ‘adequate’. It may well be time for the Criminal Bar Association, the Bar Council and the Legal Standards Board to revisit that deeming provision, but the argument that the bar is ‘willing’ to work for very poor fees in the light of both the cab rank rule and the deeming provision simply fails to recognise the reality of a barrister’s working life.

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Sandman

Evan, Barristers are not slaves. Nobody can force you to work for £80, out of which you end up out of pocket after buying your train ticket and paying for wig-cleaning. If you don’t want to work for £80 per day, you don’t have to and not even the might of the legal aid committee can say otherwise. Legal aid can offer a fee, but if it’s not worth the candle you can laugh in their face and throw their brief in the fire.

You think you’re going to be hauled before the Professional Complaints Committee for refusing to take on a case that will lose you money? If that’s the case, then maybe people should start challenging it, because it would be akin to slavery.

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Charlie

Sandman, I’m afraid you speak from a platform of ignorance. What do you propose as the alternative if, indeed, one were allowed to “refuse” work at £80? Not work that day at all? Earn nothing?

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Jim Nately

Forgive my ignorance, but is the £80 mags court fee one set by the LAA in an SI (as the Crown Court advocacy, VHCC, FAS and family-equivalent-of-VHCC-I-can’t-remember-the-name-of are) or is it dictated by solicitors applying market forces?

I have to say I was under the impression the (shocking) level of remuneration for mags trials was a function of solicitors offering less and clerks accepting on the basis it is better to have counsel in court than not?

I do understand why some sets would bully junior tenants into working for a loss if it brings in work for those higher up the food chain. But unless those members are seeing a livable year-end profit I have wonder why they chose to carry on in the grim hope that one day it will be they that enjoy the fruits of bullying those who are more junior into working for nothing.

Not Amused

That’s not true.

Because there is no shortage of people in the country who want to wear a wig.

What happens then is the falling quality of applicants. This is then covered up by the government in collusion with regulators.

The Criminal Bar has one MASSIVE failing. It has been too passive for far too long. This has been a crisis for well over a decade and nothing has been said or done. Not one voice speaks up. Grayling is just the man putting the last straw on the camel’s back. Why on earth weren’t people screaming sooner? Why are the criminal bar still so placid? Why are they not crying in the streets?

This is my country and as a citizen I have a right to know when successive governments have broken a crucial part of my country.

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AFA

“falling quality of applicants”?

The Bar is saturated by Oxbridge graduates. And even those not having graduated from Oxford or Cambridge have either studied at Durham, Bristol, LSE, UCL, and Nottingham.
Yes, there are applicants from other universities too, but frankly, how many chances to you have at the Bar of you have a degree from Westminster or Hertfordshire? It’s just not realistic to apply if you haven’t had stellar grades for your entire life and a CV full of internships relevant to the area you want to practise, working experience etc.

They need to limit the number of applicants, period. I just do not understand, how people with a 2:2 can still undertake the BPTC. I actually know 3 people that are studying for it and have a 2:2 degree and they do believe that they will make it! It is ridiculous! Even if you are studying much harder now, and you get the best possible marks, your degree result will not change!

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Ciaran Daly

That sounds pretty rough and pretty unfair. This is an issue I’m particularly interested in as an outsider to the legal profession. One aspect of this situation that always intrigues me is the disparity between payments between junior and senior barristers. Understandably, those with more experience can expect to earn more but it’s the sheer level of divergence in pay between more experienced barristers and junior barristers that perplexes me. I’ve spoken to many young barristers on the breadline but at the same time, you only have to look at the legal aid payments in the UK to see that the top 100 earning barristers in each jurisdiction are earning what could be seen as a clean fortune from practising. Admittedly the cuts to barristers’ fees are unwelcome but when some are still earning in a year what most other well-paid people could only expect to earn in a decade from legal aid payments I was wondering whether there is something that Law Society could do to standardise payments to some extent so that the gap between senior and junior counsel is not so wide? Is there something that the law society can do to redress the balance or is that not possible?

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Prospective Pupil

I am inclined to agree with “Not Amused”. The Criminal Bar has done enough to address the misconceptions held by members of the public: oysters, champagne and a lavish life-style, in part perpetuated by TV dramas and sitcoms. Hopefully this is not too little too late.

There is, however, also some degree of merit in the comments of “Sandman”. Numbers of people being called to the Bar has been rising for many years. With solicitors now holding rights of audience in the higher-courts, it is almost inevitable that the volume of work in the criminal courts is going to fall.

I do feel, however, that there is a future for the Criminal Bar, albeit a slimmed down version. This will hopefully mean the pupillages that are offered by chambers come with generous awards and the real opportunity to forge a career that is both vocationally satisfying and financially viable.

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Kris

In the Mags today, watching a BTPC grad make an unmitigated shambles of being a McKenzie Friend – when what his friend really needed was some proper advice from a qualified lawyer.

This should have been a straightforward case. Yet, without a qualified lawyer defending, it took 1/2 day to reach the inevitable verdict.

Tell me how precisely that’s saving money.

I’ve worked as both a civil and criminal legal aid barrister & solicitor – and even where a client does not accept frank advice, we make the process of a fair hearing and putting forward our clients’ best arguments in a clearer and more efficient manner.

By Sandman’s logic, the cull of the junior bar should drive legal aid fees up.

As noted above, legal aid rates are not market driven – they’re Grayling driven.

And, as per my example, even those currently without the benefit of Public funding are not turning to privately funding their cases – they are getting their half-baked pals to roll it out for them. All of which is draining the Public purse and the court officers’ will to live. Is it because they are too cheap to pay for representation? Maybe, just maybe, while earning a wage, they simply cannot pay a private fee.

Some may say diversify. I do. It’s the only way I can afford the luxury of occasionally practising as a criminal defence barrister.

You should accept as I have that people like me will never be Recorders etc. I simply do not put in the hours (about 10K hours required?) to get to that level in this lifetime.

So who’s going to do that?

Someone with a nice wee trust fund. Not the likes of me or most of the others I know at the Criminal Bar.

No, the Tories are setting up the system for more of the Bullington boys. You see this with the plans for the Police with their parachuted Superintendents as well.

So if you’re going to support these cuts, please do not lecture us about “market forces” or “savings”.

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Sandman

Kris – you’re wrong. The Minister does not operate in a vacuum. He has to pitch the legal aid rate at a level that barristers are willing to accept. Thusfar, enough of them have accepted it, albeit with a lot of grumbling.

Imagine that the rate was 99p for doing a criminal trial. How many barristers would accept instructions on those terms – few. So the rate has to settle at a level where sufficient numbers are willing to accept it. That’s called market forces – the power of barristers to dictate their terms – up to the point where other barristers are willing to accept terms.

At the moment, how many defendants are unable to get a barrister because the legal aid rates are too low? Critics might rejoin with, “ah but they can’t get a ‘good’ barrister at these rates”. But be very careful with that argument, because that means that the lower legal aid rates are actually giving *greater* opportunities to junior barristers to take briefs that previously went to more senior barristers who are no longer willing to work for the new, humble, rates.

I am all for criminal barristers having a civilised quality of life, which is why it is so depressing to me that so many do not appear to understand the dynamics of the situation they are in and work out a way to exploit them to their advantage accordingly (which goes a little bit beyond complaining that the rates they work for are not “fair”).

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andrew

Just to make some clarifications….

As for the £80 fee, we are perfectly entitled to refuse the work: criminal legal aid work is not deemed to be at a proper fee anymore. However, our clerks wouldn’t appreciate it.

As for numbers of pupillages, they have actually been dramatically falling for the past few years.

The issue is this: the legal aid fees would be acceptable if two conditions were satisfied. First: we have no expenses at all, no chambers, no debts to pay off, no insurance, no books etc…
Second: we are in court every day at least once.

Now the problem is that those assumptions are contradictory: to have no expenses you can’t have chambers. But to be in court all the time requires chambers, because trials crack/get adjourned and so you need to be able to return work and do other peoples returns.

The gvmt of course does not realise this.

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maree keating

What is very revealing here is the kind of commentary that follows when a young woman articulates something about life at the Bar. In Australian research on work life balance at the Bar, responses were, likewise, excessively negative. The culture at the Bar in Australia is such that speaking up about problems is made almost impossible for those on the inside. This speech was brave, and echoes many of the comments made by those who took part in our Australian research.
https://theconversation.com/australian-women-must-hold-their-nerve-until-justice-is-served-21464

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Richard Moorhead

There are several things at play here.

One is the Government cuts. Another is the reduction in the volume of criminal defence work. A third is the self-employed model which makes it harder and riskier for people to enter the profession. This was always true, and the Bar have sought to ameliorate this through minimum payments for pupillage but it is important to recognise that it is self-employment and it’s precarious entry route which is a significant part of the problem. The Bar can either do something about it (which would mean a radical change in its business model) or it can plead for government spending to increase (or not be cut as drastically). Neither approach is unreasonable, but only one approach has much of a chance of happening.

The three things combined mean a reduction in the size of the bar, the number of criminal pupillages and (unless students wake up and smell the rather poor smelling BPTC coffee) an increase in the riskiness of entry. That increase in riskiness will probably put more working class/’poster girl’ candidates off but, I am afraid the idea that public spending cuts are going to be successfully resisted on the basis that they are necessary to solve the Bar’s diversity problems is, to put it mildly, unlikely. Fusion will come quicker, if it comes at all; with a very small rum of heavyweight barrister advocates ultimately selected from solicitors firms (or ABS/Barrister hybrids). In terms of quality, the criminal defence system is more fairly described as precarious than world class and yet the government is showing little sign of listening to arguments that significant cuts in real and absolute cost will further damage quality. Only catastrophic failures, like serious trials not running, is likely to persuade them.

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Jase Kale

The problem is that you accept legal aid.
If you only accepted privately paying clients then the problem would go away.

Legal aid clients should be thought of as the equivalent of pro bono work.
ie: ok to do once in a while, but certainly not adequate to pay any bills.

If there are too many criminal barristers for the small number of privately funded clients, well I guess that the market has spoken….
Get out and get a real job, not one that requires suckling at the teat of the tax payer.

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DC

Would you say the same about doctors Mr Kale? GPs could do half a day’s surgery each week for those unable to pay and spend the rest of the time doing a “real job” and only treating those able to pay. Perhaps police officers could do the same: “yes I’ll come and investigate that burglary but before that a privately paying client has lost their iphone down the back of the sofa.” Can’t have people suckling at the teat of the tax payer can we?

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American Perspective

Try living in America (moved from UK 6 years ago). That’s exactly what happens. If you can’t afford it… You don’t get it. No health insurance… No care. And what’s more: you deserve to die because you didn’t work hard enough to earn the money to live so your just a drain anyway.
More than half the country believes this.

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PantsInATwist

You utter buffoon

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Simon Myerson

The problem with your proposition is there on its face: the “market” only operates for privately paying clients. That means you are suggesting that those who can’t pay privately should only be represented by people prepared to do so for free. That, in turn, means that most people accused of serious crime will not be represented.

I agree with you that this is the logic of the government’s position. I disagree with you that this is remotely acceptable. In reality, the people who cannot afford to pay are those who are least able to defend themselves. Unless you are suggesting that they are all guilty anyway (I don’t suggest you take a stance that moronic), or that it serves them right for being poor (in which case you are consenting to overweening state power, given that the resources are so unequal) your stance is to say ‘tough’.

That is idiocy. Why should those who can’t afford representation then accept the system by which they are punished? The minute they don’t do so we can forget a civil society – the police would be absolutely overwhelmed.

The reference to battening on the taxpayer is the sort of thing that makes people hug themselves with pride and joy when they write it – that’s ‘really telling them’ and being rude as well – but is daft when read a few days later. The issue isn’t the lawyer – it is whether we are collectively prepared to pay for everyone to feel that they have equal status before the law. My answer to that is yes, for the reasons set out above. The job doesn’t require suckling at the teat of the taxpayer: it requires defending those who can’t adequately speak for themselves – a category I am prepared to bet good money would include you, should you ever find yourself a defendant in a criminal trial.

If I only accepted private work, I would be saying that most people are not able to access my services. I don’t see why I would want to say that, but I also don’t see why I should work for money that doesn’t permit me to make a decent living. I suspect you don’t adopt that position as regards your own pocket.

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PantsInATwist

That was to Jase Kale

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