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‘Our goodwill has run dry’: Criminal lawyers sign open letter rejecting government plans to open courts on evenings and weekends

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Over 500 signatories

Over 500 lawyers have signed an open letter rejecting government plans to open courts on evenings and weekends.

A group of criminal solicitors and barristers, including 13 QCs, who attend court on a regular basis have written to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), saying “our goodwill has run dry” and that they will not attend a single court listing outside of regular court hours “under any circumstances”.

Last month the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that judges will have the option to open courtrooms for longer under new ‘temporary operating arrangements’. The MoJ said the measure — which would be completely at the discretion of judges — enabled a courtroom to run two lists, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, instead of the standard 10am-4pm hours.

It was deemed to be part of plans to help the court system catch up from the backlog of cases brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, but it was bitterly opposed by the legal profession.

“The backlog of cases in the criminal courts is not due to the Covid-19 outbreak,” the open letter states. “It is the result of years of underfunding of our criminal justice system. It is the inevitable outcome of selling off courts, of reducing judges’ sitting days and of other cost-cutting measures. We and our representative bodies have been banging this drum for years.”

It continues:

“Not only has the government ignored our warnings, it has overseen the obliteration of our profession. It has been entirely unmoved by respected legal aid firms closing down, duty solicitors and criminal barristers leaving the profession in droves, and pupils and trainees earning less than the Real Living Wage. It has left the courts — our places of work — leaking, filthy and broken.”

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The letter adds: “We are expected to attend hearings during our evenings and weekends when we need to spend time with our families, and to recuperate from exhausting days and nights in courts and police stations, in order to fix a disaster which is entirely of the government’s own making. We are told to do so for no extra funds, without our representative bodies having been consulted in advance.”

They go on to say that they want to clear the backlog in a sustainable way “which affords dignity to ourselves, our clients, and court staff”.

A HMCTS spokesperson said in response: “This petition is based on year-old information which was superseded by new plans published this month. Under these plans there is no proposal to mandate Crown Court trials on weekends, and any decision to extend the operating hours of a court would be for its independent resident judge.”

Yet, HMCTS published its annual report last month which contained plans to extend court and tribunal operating hours into evenings and weekends “to make more use of [court] space”.

In a statement last week, Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, strongly criticised the proposals, saying there was little evidence that longer hours worked.

“‘Temporary operating arrangements’ is yet another title for an extended court day,” he said. There is little evidence that this measure will increase throughput or allow the court estate to be used more efficiently… A longer court day will have an impact on all court users, particularly those reliant on public transport and with caring responsibilities.”

You can view the open letter here.

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37 Comments

Non-criminal barrister

Honestly, I do not know how my criminal colleagues go on. If I was practising Crime, this would most certainly be the final nail in the coffin and I would leave the Bar if I wasn’t able to diversify my practice. The fact that they do this for a pittance makes the situation even worse.

Frankly, if the Govt introduced evening and weekend hearings in my area of practice I would be inclined to leave unless I had the option to simply refuse to accept instructions out of traditional court hours.

Also, I am a young man – I don’t have caring responsibilities. It would still be enough to make me question my future at the Bar. Ok, so I don’t have to look after kids, but I also want to be able to enjoy my 20s and early 30s by going out at the weekend, seeing friends, taking holidays etc.

It is significantly more detrimental to those with caring responsibilities, and this is clearly a discriminatory measure, but even putting that to one side it is nevertheless a brutally retrograde step.

(116)(1)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“Ok, so I don’t have to look after kids, but I also want to be able to enjoy my 20s and early 30s by going out at the weekend, seeing friends, taking holidays etc.”

Then why did you apply to the Bar?

“Frankly, if the Govt introduced evening and weekend hearings in my area of practice I would be inclined to leave unless I had the option to simply refuse to accept instructions out of traditional court hours.”

Good job you’re not in criminal law, that’s all I can say.

“If I was practising Crime”

You need to practise grammar first.

(7)(56)

Non-criminal barrister

“Then why did you apply to the Bar?”

Ah yes, because the Bar famously requires one to work every weekend, not have any friends, and refuse to take holidays.

If you gave all of this up in your late 20s and early 30s for the Criminal Bar (or any other job unless you’re going to retire at 40) then I genuinely feel sorry for you.

“Good job you’re not in criminal law, that’s all I can say.”

We are agreed on that.

“You need to practise grammar first.”

Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with my grammar. Secondly, I’ve met plenty of opponents like you – arrogant, petty, and disliked by opponents and judges alike (at least those with a radar for robing room antics).

Finally, my billings and receipts are healthy, my clients are happy, and I have plenty of work in the diary, which is how I know that the opinions of dinosaurs like you on how to run my practice are toxic and without foundation.

(37)(1)

Anonymous

Every maternity nurse, tube train cleaner, teacher, residential carer and truck driver forced to work evenings and weekends for far less per hour than a barrister earns must by absolutely devastated to hear that others lose out on enjoying their evenings and weekends too.

How very dare they be asked to work the same hours as other people do every day.

(19)(122)

Anonymous

Obviously a comment from someone that hasn’t got the faintest idea how little criminal barristers earn for the hours they put in – *spoiler alert* it’s far far less per hour than all of the professions listed above, without pension or holidays.

(98)(2)

Anonymous

Are you seriously claiming that some non-pupil criminal barristers earn less than £17,000 a year? That they rely on benefits, food banks and live on council estates???

Many criminal barristers have family money, second homes, rely on inheritances and treat the advocacy all as a bit of a hobby.

They are not ‘all in this together’ with others in the UK who are genuinely struggling to survive day-to-day. It is manipulative and draws attention away from people and professions that experience genuinely dangerous working conditions.

(14)(89)

Aeneas

Pupil barristers in London often do take home less than £17,000 and that’s without pension, sick pay or any of the other benefits of employment. Remember that there is a difference between turnover and profit.

You may also wish to consider that whilst all of the jobs you list above are important, many of them come without the enormous cost that criminal barristers have accrued from Law School and Bar School.

As for your assertion that “many criminal barristers have family money, second homes, rely on inheritances”, putting aside that this is an absurd generalisation, remember that the Bar is trying to achieve diversity. The Bar should reflect the population it serves. Most criminal barristers already work on the evenings and weekends. Extending such hours further only undermines the Bar’s attempt to ensure diversity. Many of those with caring responsibilities will, I suspect, simply seek employment elsewhere

(57)(3)

Anonymous

LOL at the Bar trying to ‘achieve diversity’.

Don’t fall for the recent marketing, soundbites and virtue signalling because barristers are embarrassed at how out of line they are with the rest of the world’s workplaces.

As much as diversity is good, there is no legal requirement for the Bar to ‘reflect the diversity’ of those they serve. I’m not sure many of them even want that.

If chambers wanted more BAME, working class or state educated pupils, they would have picked them without needing fanfare, scholarships or Twitter ‘likes’. They’d already be there.

Monty

What in God’s name are you on about? This looney still believes the Criminal Bar is the preserve of gentleman barristers that treat the profession as a sport than a career whilst living off the rent generated by their estates. Stop reading Wodehouse and start living in the real world or at the very least I suggest you wipe that clown makeup off your face.

(7)(3)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“Obviously a comment from someone that hasn’t got the faintest idea how little criminal barristers earn”

My heart bleeds.

You earn less when you start and/or when you are less talented. As time wears on AND your talent grows, then you earn lots and lots of money.

I wonder if you’ll every see that for yourself.

(2)(41)

I really hope you're not a solicitor

Fancy being sweated in the office every single weekend for ~30k per year if you’re lucky, plus working 12-14 hour days every day in the week?

(42)(0)

Anonymous.0

The professions you listed there don’t have to take work home. Barristers and solicitors often use their evenings and weekends to prepare for the next case or wrap up a previous one. When will they have time do that, if they’re required in court during those times. This proposal will end up with people not being adequately represented.

(11)(4)

Anon

1. All those other jobs tend to begin at the start of a shift and end when the shift finishes. If a barrister is in court 8-7, when are they supposed to prepare for their hearings, take instructions, write opinions, do written arguments, practice management (ie billing, cpd, interviewing, and all the other things, including building a practice)?

2. Barristers don’t work in shifts. Yes, nurses can work at weekends, nights and so on, but that’s not how the legal sector operates.

(19)(2)

Moaners

So this lot were moaning about not making enough money and now they don’t want more work? Taxpayers pay these guys, and there are plenty of people to replace them cheaply if they want to jog on.

(4)(84)

Anon

I suppose we should just let people accused of committing a crime (that they may not have done) to defend themselves? Or, as you suggest, some gimp who has done a 6 week evening course at the local poly? Get an absolute grip. God forbid you ever get caught with a bit too much whiff in your pocket from your sweaty job in the SC, as you desperately try to improve your mental health via the bag and the Police catch wind.

(8)(0)

Do They Eat Banknotes?

Junior criminal barristers can supplement their fixed court fees by doing work on large inquiries, such as the on-going Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Four years on from the fire, £61,000,000 has been spent in legal costs so far. How much more will be spent in the years to come?

These people are laughing at you if you believe they are genuinely struggling to get by.

(15)(86)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“These people are laughing at you if you believe they are genuinely struggling to get by.”

It’s the shit ones who make that claim, and in their case, it’s likely to be true.

(0)(34)

Property Barrister

Some figures which will apply to many junior criminal barristers:

Let’s say the junior bills £1200 per week, which is pretty good going and assumes a reasonable amount of crown court work. Allow them 4 weeks holiday a year, that means annual billing is £57,600. Sounds good, what are they moaning about?

Knock off 15% chambers fees – Now at £48,960.
Then say £500/m chambers rent – £42,960
A fairly conservative £100/w travel (which also will cover hotel costs and subsistence) – £38,160
Insurance and practising certificate are probably around £1500 – £36,660
Necessary memberships, books, stationery, ICO fee, accountancy fees, business phone/internet subscriptions, will easily come to another £2k a year, so now at £34,660.

Now, this all assumes that they’re not also paying, say, BPTC loan repayments, something into a pension, income protection insurance or private health insurance. None of those would be unreasonable or unrealistic, and are necessary to add on before you can compare the criminal bar to other, employed work.
These could easily push their income below £30k.

For that £30k-ish, they’ll be already working 50-60 hour weeks. That means an actual pay in the region of £10.50 – £12.50 per hour. A great many of those hours will already be at evenings and weekends. Add to that that the work itself is extremely difficult, and well beyond most lawyers.

I therefore have no difficulty in appreciating that the disruption caused by anti-social court opening hours is a complete slap in the face.

(104)(1)

Anonymous

Time to do away with the Chambers model?

(3)(8)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“what are they moaning about?”

They start off, like most people in the world of work, on a living wage. Unlike many, they have the opportunity to stratospherically increase their stipend in a relatively short time…if they’re talented.

It’s a tough career. High competition. Intense intellectual graft. No country for stupid men.

(0)(19)

Anonymous

The criminal barristers are a bunch of moaners. The state only needs to provide a minimum service not a Rally Royce one. And there is no shortage of supply in the market. If they don’t like it many many other jobs are available. They already have the cheek to get the civil barristers to subsidise their practising certificates, which was a disgrace.

(3)(61)

Tordenskjold

Clearly you haven’t got a clue what you are talking about. I hope you never have need to use a criminal barrister but if you did you may then gain some much needed insight.

(32)(1)

Anonymous

Enlighten us

(0)(4)

Do solicitors realise

90% of the Criminal Bar could have walked into their jobs at City firms on graduation. Be grateful they didn’t take your TC.

I guess you’re the ones laughing now though.

(24)(3)

Anonymous

I agree they should not be forced to work weekends. I know the criminal bar is already massively underfunded – for many years – and the junior barristers are overworked. I am not a barrister yet, but I have a feeling I won’t be practicing in criminal law for numerous reasons.

If the government actually funded the criminal justice system and improved the courts to the prestigious place they should be, then the problem would eventually solve itself through (?) . Without funding, to the legal system in general, then the rule of law is going to become worthless, partly because nobody is going to want to work in it.

(21)(0)

Archibald Pomp O'City

“I have a feeling I won’t be practicing in criminal law for numerous reasons.”

Grammar being one of those reasons.

(0)(22)

Anon

There is a tremendous brain drain away from the criminal bar. I am part of it. My brain drained (or at least dribbled) away from the criminal bar a few years ago. I found that by doing general common law work I could double my income and reduce my workload by a third. An easy choice to make. There are many talented graduates who are actively avoiding the criminal bar because they are aware of the issues which junior criminal barristers face. Many of those who do join end up leaving after a few years (or filling their diary with non-criminal work, e.g. regulatory, local government etc.). This is a slow-motion disaster for anyone who cares about having the guilty convicted and the innocent protected. Anything that worsens pay or conditions is going to accelerate this process.

The other bugbear for me about extended operating hours is that people just do not realise what hours criminal barristers tend to work. Court only sits from 10.30am to 4pm, easy peasy! If we bring the start time forward to 9am, boo hoo, barristers are only having to work the same hours as normal people, what are they moaning about? No. For every hour in court there is probably half an hour to an hour of preparation. The distances which we commute range from the trivial to the obscene. A 9am start often means leaving the house at 5am. I get the distinct impression that this scheme has been dreamt up by one of those consulting firms who charge squillions per hour and have no idea about what they are actually advising about.

(27)(0)

Taminy

I don’t think people realize how difficult criminal work is. You are constantly in court and when you aren’t, you are preparing for it. They don’t only work 10-4 when the courts are open. They are also in the office during the evenings and weekends preparing for what they must doing in court from 10-4. Think of a life where you are already routinely working Saturdays and working at least one Sunday a month. They are already working late into the night and and on weekends. If they have to be in court from 10-8PM, I guess they would then have to prepare until 3AM and wake up at 6AM everyday instead because they don’t even get back to the office until 8:30PM to prepare for the next day’s long list of clients. These lawyers are trying their best to keep the profession going, by not making working conditions worse, and to attract new blood to ensure the system retains its integrity. The point is, criminal work is not at all attractive financially and the work is thankless. Many of the posts here seem to illustrate quite well how thankless it truly is, even among those interested in the profession more generally. There’s already an exodus and those that remain are saddened by it and are trying to stop it.

(22)(0)

Oh shut up Barristers

Oh please do stop moaning criminal Barristers, it’s awfully tiresome. You have no worth. The market does not value you as the clients usually can’t pay anything and the people don’t value you. You are de facto public sector and you are way down the pecking order of public sector employees. Way way below nurses and teachers, probably less valued than binmen. Because the people don’t value you, the government doesn’t give a toss. Everyone knows who you are for the most part, upper middle classers, usually woke to the core, like all those posh idiots that go over to the states to get murderers off the death penalty which they usually deserve.

We all know why you do it, because you think it’s worthy and sexy at the same time, all that prancing about in wigs being the focus of a thousand TV dramas, all that Atticus Finch stuff. It’s what all the really bright and virtuous people do isn’t it? And of course it so soothes some of that middle-class guilt. You’re not fooling anyone with the impoverished sainthood schtick. Real people who work for a living have zero sympathy.

If you don’t like the heat get out of the kitchen. It’s time the bar was scrapped anyway and the whole system rethought.

(5)(47)

Anonymous

Stop and read what you’ve actually written, and slowly this time, because this is what you sound like:

Barristers go through years of education and shell out the tens of thousands of Pounds in fees for it whilst devoting their lives to fighting for the rights of the accused so they can play dress-up and prance about a courtroom because they watched To Kill a Mockingbird that one time and found that Atticus Finch character awfully dashing.

You are lucky to be living in a country where the cab-rank rule bars Criminal Barristers from doing away with their legal aid work entirely, as is the case abroad.

(8)(2)

The Jig Is Up

Tbh, anyone who ever joined a debating society at university treats the Bar as exactly that – a club to prance about with old friends in gowns and to use their job title to pull.

(5)(2)

Al

“You are lucky to be living in a country where the cab-rank rule bars Criminal Barristers from doing away with their legal aid work entirely”

The ‘deeming provisions’ i.e. where legal aid fees were deemed to be proper remuneration for the purposes of cab rank, were abolished back in 2014.

https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/resources/resource-library/bsb-acts-to-clarify-regulatory-position-over-very-high-cost-cases–vhccs-.html

In practice though, how many barristers have the option of turning down LA work and only doing private funded cases?

(0)(0)

Cessle

You should take your own advice.

(0)(0)

This is what I wrote in response to a recent Legal Aid Agency - some of the links may be useful. Take my opinions for what they are: just one person's.

I considered a legal aid career very seriously, including undertaking mini-pupillages, work experience with criminal solicitors, and even Crown Court marshalling. When however, in due course, I was exposed to the financial reality I discounted it entirely. I went on to secure a training contract in a City law firm, and I’m now 3 PQE. Here is my analysis of the merits:

IN FAVOUR:

1. Genuine advocacy opportunities, and the ability to run one’s own cases.

2. For those to whom this appeals, ‘social justice’, etc.

AGAINST:

1. It is appallingly paid, with no prospects of improvement to pay or advancement within the profession.

2. Perversely, the level of competition means that there are a surfeit of candidates applying for pupillage/training contracts, thus further rendering a career high risk. In other words, not only is the ‘prize’ (tenancy for barristers, NQ place for solicitors) of questionable value, there is a high risk of failing to even get one’s foot into the door at the pupillage/training contract stage.

The publicly-funded legal sector has been gutted over the last 20 years. For example, see this 2009 warning by Alex Deane of the reality of being a criminal barrister: https://www.lccsa.org.uk/crime-doesnt-pay

A decade later, this 2019 article by a newly-redundant criminal solicitor (more importantly, *read the comments* underneath), shows that the position had only worsened: https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/young-legal-aid-lawyer-shares-pain-over-redundancy/5070734.article.

Even more recently, in May 2021, Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, warned: ‘There are far too many people doing bar courses and paying a great deal of money when the attrition rate… is so high. I can’t think of many other instances where you would train with such a low prospect of success. I don’t think the idea that we should have a vast pool for some sort of diversity reason is a good one. We need to be honest about how many people are likely to get pupillage.’ According to Bar Council figures, 3,301 candidates applied for just 246 positions via the pupillage gateway this year. https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news-focus/news-focus-bar-no-end-to-justice-emergency/5108599.article

It is beyond stupid that anyone pursues a career in criminal law. It is palpably clear that (a) the sector is starved of funds; (b) decades ago there had been some very good years in which lots of people had made lots of money, but those days are over; and (c) the future is grim: the electorate loathe criminals, and post-Covid the UK state is as near to bankrupt as a state can be, so there will never be any incentive for the sector to be even adequately funded again, let alone funded to a level whereby it is attractive as a career option.

Market forces, i.e. supply and demand, will not provide criminal lawyers. By definition, the client base are primarily failed criminals, i.e. they have both committed crimes, and have been caught. The only reliable revenue stream is therefore from central government, i.e. legal aid. That is constrained by the fact that most of the tax-paying public loathe criminals. That therefore limits the extent to which legal aid can be increased.

Singapore has the same issue. They have created a subsidised law degree, designed to provide ‘social justice lawyers’ (my phrase, not theirs):

“Singapore University of Social Sciences is the only university in Singapore dedicated to working adults, allowing them to pursue lifelong learning and higher education while balancing career, family and social responsibilities. The primary focus of the University School of Law is to train and produce lawyers for the practice of law in Singapore particularly in the areas of Criminal Law and Family Law. This is part of the national effort to meet the need for lawyers in the areas of Criminal Law and Family Law. Currently, there is a gap in the supply in terms of well-trained lawyers for these areas of law. Traditionally, lawyers tend to gravitate to the commercial areas of law thus leaving a gap in Criminal Law and Family Law areas. From the perspective of our society, this is a concern we need to address. Singapore University of Social Sciences School of Law seeks to address this shortfall.”

https://www.suss.edu.sg/programmes/detail/bachelor-of-laws-lawllb

SUGGESTIONS:

1. Subsidised training pathway, with a requirement to work in criminal law as pay-back. If the UK is to develop junior criminal lawyers, it will need to create a similar subsidised qualification path similar to Singapore’s. This could be tied in to a requirement to work for, e.g. CPS or the Criminal Defence Service (if that still exists). In a era of immense financial challenges to the public purse, this may however be an insurmountable barrier.

2. Reorganise the pupillage system so that pupillages are *only* offered to people *before* they begin the BPTC. Presently, the system incentivises thousands of hopeless candidates to squander their money, and jam up the system. If pupillages were only offered (by virtue of regulatory fiat by the BSB) to those yet to undertake the BPTC, then the phenomenon of thousands of doomed BPTC graduates rendering the criminal law far too risk a path for competent candidates would be mitigated.

3. Fund training contracts, with the requirement that people work in the legal aid sector for ‘x’ years post-qualification. Or, vastly expand the Criminal Defence Service to entirely replace the current system, and create a ‘graduate entry pipeline’ which would effectively be a subsidised training contract with payback requirement.

Unfortunately, I suspect that the legal aid sector is doomed to slowly wither away, and become ever more like the personal injury sector: predominantly staffed by underqualified paralegals, badly supervised by a limited number of commercially-minded lawyers who are simply focused on P&L and EBITDA, rather than actually delivering competent legal services. At the high end, this shouldn’t be a problem because a small % of law firms and barristers will develop white collar/fraud practices, and thereby ensure that well-heeled/well-insured company directors et al will get competent representation. The majority of the population are probably in trouble, though (albeit if CPS quality deteriorates further too, then perhaps more defendants will get away with it!).

(23)(0)

Anonymous

Reasonable suggestions at the end. I note that several US state bars require wannabe-lawyers to have pro bono hours (typically in legal aid clinics) as a prerequisite to qualification. I know lots of law faculties here have really helpful legal aid clinics so the infrastructure for such a scheme is more or less there already. Pro bono hours for firms of all types also should be directed at providing legal aid-esque defence services. Rather than any ad hoc charity work like picking up trash or simple fundraisers.

In general though we should be more concerned about access and funding to competent criminal defence solicitors and barristers. The powers of the state being brought against an individual is a frightening prospect and, as they are inevitably a results-driven organisation, they do not care about the circumstance of the accused.

(1)(0)

Scouser of Counsel

The number of mothballed Court buildings standing idle in the HMCTS estate is staggering.

Some have been sold off, and it’s too late to reopen them, but there are others that were closed and could be reopened, even if temporarily. E.g. Maidenhead Magistrates’ Court.

There are also Courtrooms in other public buildings, such as Town Halls, that are disused and opened for functions, exhibitions etc that could be utilised eg County Hall in Oxford, St George’s Hall in Liverpool etc.

(0)(0)

Al

This is quite an interesting list of sales of court buildings; and the prices the govt got for them.

https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2018-02-08/127599

(0)(0)

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