This week, I was contacted by local criminal barristers who raised their concerns about the lack of Government funding into the criminal justice system. Barristers across the country have also participated in strikes, demanding fairer pay, investment in legal aid and better staff retention and recruitment.

I was shocked to learn that in their first 3 years of practice, junior criminal barristers earn a median income of only £12,200. This equates to £6.25ph for a 40 hour week, significantly below minimum wage. Unsurprisingly, many are forced out of the industry, others into debt and many having to rely on family or friends for money. This is really shocking and speaks volume about how the Government values our legal professionals.

I am deeply concerned that the crisis in legal aid and staffing will continue to worsen the backlog in the criminal courts. This will mean that victims of crime will be forced to wait much longer than necessary and prolong their right to justice. For a Government that is “tough on crime”, the reality is very different. I have submitted the following Parliamentary Questions on this issue:

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid’s recommendations on (a) a pay review body and (b) reforms to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme in respect of criminal barristers being paid for written work.

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what discussions he has had with the Criminal Bar Association on recent strikes.

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, whether his Department is taking steps to help improve the (a) retention and (b) recruitment of criminal junior barristers.

I have also written to the Justice Secretary to highlight my concerns and request clarification on how he is tackling this issue. You can read my letter below:

Dear Mr Raab,

This week, I was contacted by criminal barristers from my constituency and I am writing to you to raise their urgent concerns about the crisis in the criminal courts.

Firstly, I would like to take the opportunity to thank all barristers and members of our criminal justice system for their incredible work and the vital role they play in keeping our society safe and representing the laws of this country. I pay a special tribute to the barristers who recently took time out of their busy schedules to talk to me; sharing their personal stories, struggles and advocacy for their colleagues and the sector in which they work.

As you know, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has carried out several days of action due to your Government’s proposals on criminal legal aid. Due to the chronic underinvestment by your Government, the criminal justice system has suffered an average decrease of 28% in real earnings since 2006. In their first 3 years of practice, junior criminal barristers earn a median income of only £12,200. This equates to £6.25ph for a 40 hour week, significantly below minimum wage. One of the barristers I spoke to told me about having to rely on her partner’s income during the start of her career and that without grants and scholarships, she would have had to leave the profession. This is understandable, given that 83% of junior barristers are forced into personal debt.

Not only do these poor earnings and falling real incomes make life impossible for junior barristers during this cost-of-living crisis, it is disastrous for recruitment and retention. The sector has lost a quarter of specialist criminal barristers over the last 5 years and last year, another 300 were forced to leave criminal practice, including 40% of junior criminal barristers. The rate of staff turnover has quadrupled. In addition, diversity at the criminal bar is under threat. Those from lower-income backgrounds, disproportionally women and people from ethic minority backgrounds, are more likely to face financial exclusion. I am sure you agree that there can be no ‘levelling up’ in the legal profession if junior barristers from ordinary backgrounds are unable to afford to continue doing criminal legal aid work. What is being done to financially support junior barristers, including the availability of scholarships and grants? 

What does all of this mean? From March 2021 to March 2022, more than 1,000 criminal trials were postponed at the last minute for lack of an available barrister. Worryingly, a large proportion of these were cases involving serious sexual and violent offences. For a Conservative Party that is “tough on crime” and under extreme pressure to tackle violence against women and girls, this is absolute disgraceful. The consequences for victims, witnesses and defendants of being turned away from the door of the court have been deeply damaging. Why are victims being forced to wait for justice? 

I would also like to raise my concerns about your Government’s refusal to implement recommendations made by the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid with respect to a pay review body, and reforms of the AGFS so that criminal barristers are paid for written work (currently unpaid). Do you accept the recommendations made in this report and if so, please can you provide a timetable of implementation? 

It is important to say that the Criminal Bar Association does not want to go on strike. For 12 years they have been pushed and pushed and have now reached a breaking-point. I recently visited Wood Green Crown Court and saw first-hand the vital role that the courts play in our society. They need the full support and backing of this Government. One of the barristers said to me, “we feel degraded, under-valued and we are finally ready to walk off the job”. I believe the Government needs to wake up and listen the concerns of our criminal justice workers in order to secure the long-term viability of the profession and therefore of the criminal justice system as a whole.

I would be grateful if you would investigate this matter and respond to the above raised concerns.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Catherine West

Link to Instagram Link to Twitter Link to YouTube Link to Facebook Link to LinkedIn Link to Snapchat Close Fax Website Location Phone Email Calendar Building Search