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The Sun has just reported that a junior criminal barrister from Birmingham was the country’s highest paid lawyer

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He wasn’t, by the way

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As if the bad weather hasn’t made us miserable enough, now the national press has reported that a junior criminal barrister was the highest paid lawyer of 2007.

*rolls eyes*

The culprit? The Sun, who made the obvious gaff in an exclusive article about Balbir Singh (pictured below), a 61 year-old lawyer who heads a criminal set up in Birmingham.

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Apparently, Singh — described by the national newspaper as a “top barrister” — has been arrested along with five other “legal professionals” for perverting the course of justice. Though details are thin on the ground, the newspaper understands the arrests were made in relation to interference with a witness in a current case.

A scandalous story no doubt, but hidden away in the article was a niggly little paragraph that caught our eye:

In 2007 [Singh] got £1.1million in legal aid to make him the country’s highest-paid lawyer and the following year topped the table again with £957,000.

It continues:

In 2012 he got £523,000 and the a [sic] similar amount the next year, despite being technically a junior barrister.

It’s pretty difficult to believe any junior barrister would be raking in a salary five times higher than the Master of the Rolls (£220,000), let alone one specialising in crime. Though there are of course exceptions, criminal law tends to be badly paid: Legal Cheek reported last year that some criminal barristers earn as little as £2.40 an hour, while just this month one frustrated advocate logged on to Twitter to complain about travelling 150 miles to a hearing for which he wasn’t paid.

So, is Singh really the fat cat, top earning lawyer the press are painting him out to be?

Well, probably not. The Sun’s claim has been dismissed as “lazy reporting” by anonymous blogging barrister the Secret Barrister, who was quick to point out that commercial law is a more profitable practice area. He explained:

He may have had the highest legal aid receipts for that year (although that of course doesn’t mean he earned it all in one year — that could represent several years’ work that was paid late), but he will not have been the highest paid lawyer, not by a long stretch. Commercial silks will bill far more, as will good commercial juniors, and that’s before you turn to partners at magic circle firms.

Max Hardy, barrister at 9 Bedford Row — though perhaps not dismissing the £1.1million figure bandied about by The Sun — pointed out that it is very misleading. The Ministry of Justice, he told Legal Cheek, used to publish the earnings of a handful of top barristers in a so-called ‘fat cat list’, which the bar was very unhappy about for a number of reasons.

The published figures were before tax, included VAT that barristers do not get to keep, did not necessarily reflect payment for work undertaken in one calendar year, and made no allowance for Chambers’ rent — so it’s certainly not true that Singh pocketed over a million pounds in 2007.

This isn’t the first blunder made by the national press when reporting on law and legal news. Human rights lawyers couldn’t help but have a giggle at an article about Amal Clooney that featured in the Daily Mail a few weeks ago, in particular this line:

[Clooney] works for the right-on, Left-wing Doughty Chambers in London, a set of self-regarding high-achievers who like to call themselves human rights lawyers, but surely all law is human rights?

It very much looks like The Sun article is just one in a long, long list of sketchy tabloid reports of legal news stories. If we were Singh we’d be much more upset about the number of legal commentators that have questioned his “top barrister” status.