The justice system is at a “tipping point” after decades of underfunding, with some barristers earning less than the minimum wage, the Treasury has been warned.
In an open letter before the government’s annual spending review, the Bar Council, which represents 17,000 barristers, said those on government fees could earn the equivalent of £6.25 an hour “despite their central role in clearing the 500,000-plus backlog of cases in the criminal courts”.
The poor rates of legal aid pay are having a “disproportionate impact on diversity” in the legal profession, the report adds, driving out women, ethnic minority and state-educated barristers who are all more likely to work in publicly funded areas of law.
The report says: “The need for the judiciary to reflect society has never been more important. As the bar is the main feeder for the judiciary, any impact on diversity at the bar will have an inevitable knock-on effect on judicial diversity.”
Years of campaigning against legal aid cuts have mainly been directed at the Ministry of Justice but the latest statement shifts the blame to the heart of government.
“The justice system in England and Wales is at a tipping point,” the open letter said. “Once highly regarded as a vital public service, today’s system is widely acknowledged to be suffering from a decade of underinvestment.
“Crime is increasing, yet prosecutions are falling. Too many people are unable to access justice quickly or effectively. The challenges that the sector faces have simply been heightened in the wake of Covid-19; people are having to wait even longer for justice to be delivered, with trials taking months, and in some cases years to be heard.”
Barristers, usually self-employed, travel to courts all over the country for submissions that can earn them very modest fees but take an entire day.
Some, the Bar Council says, are earning less than £13,000 a year pre-tax after they pay essential expenses and memberships. This works out at £6.25 an hour if they had worked 40-hour weeks. The national minimum wage rates for over 18-year-olds starts at £6.45 an hour.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, 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.”
The Ministry of Justice has been asked for comment.