Junior criminal barristers earning less than minimum wage, Bar Council warns

By on

Forced to take second and even third jobs to ‘make ends meet’

Some criminal barristers are earning less than the National Minimum Wage (NMW), according to the Bar Council, despite their pivotal role in helping clear the enormous backlog of cases in the criminal courts.

In a spending review submitted to the Treasury, the Bar Council says some publicly funded juniors in the first two years of practice were, in 2019/20, earning less than £13,000 a year pre-tax and after overheads. This, it says, equates to £6.25 an hour based on a 40-hour week — 20p short of the £6.45 MMW starting rate for over 18s.

The body, which represents approximately 17,000 barristers in England and Wales, claims the poor pay means many juniors are forced to seek out second and even third jobs to “make ends meet”.

The Bar Council goes on to make a number of recommendations, including upping the justice budget by £2.48 billion (equivalent to an extra 22p per person per day) to upgrade the court system; provide access to early legal advice to support the most vulnerable and help them to succeed in life; and protect England and Wales’ position as a leading global legal centre.

The 2020 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

Chair of the bar, Amanda Pinto QC, said:

“The spending review is the government’s chance to protect the rights of the British public and restore confidence in law and order in this country. For too long, there has been a dismal failure to invest in the Ministry of Justice budget, and many barristers were left unsupported by the government, struggling to get by, as courts closed during the pandemic and their work dried up. The justice sector is now in a dire state: outrageously long delays to people’s cases and shockingly low fees for legal professionals are undermining the government’s commitment to law and order.”

Last year it emerged that the government was looking to recruit a barista on a salary package in excess of that earned by the average junior legal aid barrister. The role, ‘Head Barista’ for the House of Commons, came with a salary of £23,290 and benefits including a civil service pension, 30 days annual leave and a childcare voucher scheme.


Jeremy Corbyn

Established practitioners at the big commercial sets will need to contribute to a fund to redistribute their lucre amongst the bar as a whole.

The bar has seen that governments of either hue will not provide more money.

All those big time silks earning squillions a year at Essex Court etc will need to pony up.



How much does the average Essex Court Silk earn?

It seems likely that the £1.7m PEP at Magic Circle and US firms are the real excesses, if we even accept the very questionable proposition that we should be going after commercial lawyers to subsidise the criminal Bar.


Sqreugh Yew

I have enough of my earnings stolen to pay for criminals and illegal immigrants with 45% income tax and 12% or 15% stamp duty, thank you very much.



I agree that the lower courts are chronically under-funded. However, I heard many rumours and complaints over the years that (a) barristers ‘milked the system’ in the 1980’s and 1990’s, abusing taxpayers’ money to fund luxurious lifestyles; and (b) those barristers, now very senior, have manipulated legal aid negotiations with the government to the detriment of the junior bar, so that the senior bar continues to rake in money. I assumed that this was merely tabloid hyperbole. I was therefore genuinely surprised to read in the Law Society Gazette in August 2018 a story in which barristers were complaining because, for a case with a single defendant, Ames v The Lord Chancellor [Ref 1], barristers were ‘only’ being offered £1,015,200 (that’s not a mistake: that’s over one million pounds of taxpayers’ money for the defence of a single criminal). There was no suggestion that this was an isolated case.

Four questions:

1. Is *anyone* in the senior bar making more than £100k per barrister, per year? Is the impression fair that, while the system overall is underfunded, the senior bar are making a fortune? If not, could someone please explain what went wrong in Ames v The Lord Chancellor, noted above.

2. How can we justify the cost – either per barrister or per defendant? On what basis can we justify to members of the public spending anywhere near 1£M on a single defendant: professionals in other parts of the public sector survive on very reasonable salaries. A Royal Navy commander in charge of a ship, and in whom the lives of that ship’s company is vested, for example, is paid about £70,000 per year. They have more responsibility than any solicitor or barrister.

3. Why not vastly expand the Public Defender Service (“PDS”)? This appears to be an alternative. See ‘MoJ goes on hiring spree to strengthen Public Defender Service’ [Ref 2]. Surely it would be cheaper to cease using the bar, and instead pay train and employee PDS advocates. In the case cited above, even (a) employing two lawyers; (b) at the highest salary of £80k each; and (c) assuming they worked on solely on one case full-time for 12 months, that would be £160k just in their salaries, plus – for argument’s sake – an additional £160k for capitation costs (e.g. pension, overheads, etc.). Please ignore the ‘PDS aren’t independent, would you like to be defended by someone who works for the government’ argument: it is offensive to public sector professionals who discharge their duties conscientiously, and it smacks of an ad hominem attack to distract from the financial metrics. Why could we not – why should we not – replace the publicly-funded solicitors’ firms and criminal defence bar with a much-expanded PDS (comprised largely of very, i.e. cheap, junior paralegals and solicitors)?

4. If barristers want to be rich, surely they should change field? Finally, having instructed barristers myself, either directly or as a small cog in a larger team, I have seen the vast range of fees paid from junior counsel to silk, from £1k to >£1M. I accept that the commercial bar makes a lot of money. All the people we (those instructing counsel) paid were worth it, because we made commercial decisions, and we are not publicly-funded. If barristers want this sort of money, surely they should join the commercial bar, where their fees are governed by market forces and corporate customers and Magic Circle firms can choose what to pay (indeed many of my friends have made just this transition). What am I missing?

Many thanks if anyone is able and willing to address these questions.






I don’t like the insinuation that a barista is somehow worth less than a barrister.

Yes, criminal barristers should be paid more. But lets not diss baristas, many of whom work long hours in tough conditions.


Archibald Pomp O'City

Are you that scary guy in Alyx? If so I shan’t try to argue with you.



OK, over the last 20 years heavy hearings in criminal cases have more than halved in number. Yet the criminal bar over that period has continued to expand in numbers by over 2% a year. Basic supply and demand, especially when the skill sets required are relatively straightforward. What do they expect to happen to income?



There seem to be two linked problems:

1. Supply and Demand – too many criminal barristers wanting the work so they will do it for whatever pittance the Govt is offering.

2. Few criminal barristers seem interested in transferring to better-paid areas.

The market is (to put it politely) rather stuffed, with the result being that criminal practice is a de facto hobby for many. Which causes problems where the CJS is quasi-public sector and things like diversity are important.



And worse, the criminal barristers are sponging more and more off the civil practitioners through the staged regulatory fees now.



They are free to do something else. Your criminal bar is too dependant on state money. NSW much better.


Archibald Pomp O'City

They just need to get those extra jobs don’t they? Pay their way until they can show they’re any good. Barristerial work is hard. Having a good law degree doesn’t mean you’ll be a good barrister nor that you ought to be paid as such. Earn your stripes and then piss over everyone else for the rest of your working life.



We have wasted too much taxpayer money on an over expensive Rolls Royce criminal justice system when all we need is a basic Ford Zetec. Pay junior public defenders £20k a year and get rid of the state funding of the private bar.


Comments are closed.

Related Stories