Chairman's Update - 29 October 2015

29 October 2015

Alistair - Bar Conf PicRecent analysis from finance provider LDF, on the basis of HMRC tax returns, suggest that the Bar, financially, is doing rather well for itself. According to their analysis, the profession's total annual earnings were £1.5 billion in 2012-13, which made an average yearly income of £118,000, compared with £108,000 the year before.

These findings fuel the "fat cat" label the Bar, with which the Bar is sometimes burdened, but, as I pointed out in a recent article in The Times, it is important to handle these headline-grabbing figures with care.

As the report on barristers' fees makes clear, there is an increasing gap in earnings between those who perform privately funded work and those who are paid from public funds, who have suffered successive reductions in their income over the last seven years. In addition, gross fee income is not the equivalent of a salary.  It represents turnover and includes VAT. As most barristers are self-employed, they have to pay for their expenses out of that income.  Such expenses include the costs of staff, office space, travel, insurance, pension and sick pay, which together account for about half of a barrister's turnover.  It is important to recognise that many of these costs have also risen and continue to rise.  Barristers pay income tax on invoices rendered rather than at the point of receipt of that income.  The figures may also include payment for work done in earlier years, and payments received by one barrister but passed on to another. 

Since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, hundreds of thousands of people have been denied access to legal advice for problems with family, housing, welfare, debt and the education of their children. In crime, prosecuting and defending cases has become more and more difficult following years of cuts. It is not uncommon for a junior barrister to put in a hard day's work at a magistrates court and still fail to make the minimum wage. 

As an example, 2,255 of the 4,931 barristers doing criminal legal aid work received less than £50,000 in gross fee income in 2012/13. After deducting VAT and expenses, these barristers earned no more than, and often significantly less than, the 2013 national average wage of £27,174 for a job that demands working in the evenings and at weekends in order to provide the highest quality of service for their clients.  In addition, merely to qualify as barristers, they will have had to incur large debts to pay for their initial training and postgraduate study. 

There is also a positive angle to any increased earnings at the Bar; it shows we are in demand. England and Wales is the pre-eminent legal jurisdiction for international businesses seeking to resolve their disputes fairly, efficiently and at the best possible price. The UK is a favoured destination because our legal system, legal professionals, and judiciary are among the most trusted and respected in the world. Clients from all other legal jurisdictions know that the Bar delivers excellence in advocacy, legal advice and arbitration and that barristers work across a wide range of sectors including financial services, shipping, construction, energy, insurance, banking, white collar crime and intellectual property. In addition, barristers are often called upon to work in other common law jurisdictions because of their talent and expertise. Barristers doing international cases are winning business through hard work, innovation and excellence, and for that they deserve credit.  They and solicitors are also bringing much needed foreign exchange into the UK for the benefit of the Treasury and taxpayers. 

Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference 

Although the Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference was almost two weeks ago, it is still fresh in our minds, partly because it was such a success. We have received very positive feedback from delegates, some of it conveyed to us very publicly via Twitter. 

More than 600 people attended the conference and at one point it was trending on Twitter at number four in the UK, such was the intensity of the Tweeting during the event. The main criticism, if we can call it that, is that the content of the various sessions was so rich that delegates wanted to be in two sessions at the same time, which suggests the topics covered on the day were of genuine interest and relevance to the Bar. The Bar Council is keen to build on the success of this, the 30th Annual Bar Conference, and feedback is welcomed via the online feedback survey

It was vital that we had the Young Bar join the conference. In previous years, the Young Bar has held its own, separate event. Bringing the Bar together for one conference covering a range of topics that affect both young Bar and the rest of us gave the conference a real buzz. It also provided the launch pad for the Young Bar Hub and Toolkit, an online portal which acts as a 'one stop shop' for the junior Bar to help them develop their careers. From tax affairs, to wellbeing, the toolkit brings into one place important advice for those in the early stages of their careers. On top of that advice, the hub will list relevant events and seminars for the young Bar and other useful information. 

This kind of advice and support would have been useful to those of us who have been at the Bar for some years. It can only benefit today's emerging Bar. 

National Pro Bono Week 

Looking ahead, National Pro Bono Week runs from 2-7 November 2015. The week is an opportunity for the Bar and the wider legal sector to celebrate the vast amounts of pro bono work we do for the benefit of the public. It is also a platform to encourage others to get involved in pro bono work, but it is also a reminder that this aspect of the Bar's contribution to society is, and never can be, a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system. 

I, for one, am extremely proud of the contribution the Bar gives via pro bono, whether that be through the Bar Pro Bono Unit, Free Representation Unit or some other initiative. More than 3600 barristers sit on the BPBU volunteer panel and almost half of our members agree to pay the £30 BPBU contribution each year. I have no doubt this is probably just the tip of the iceberg and that much more activity goes on amongst the Bar and in other parts of the legal sector. 

I hope the barristers embrace National Pro Bono Week, attend the many events that are taking place and, for those thinking about how they can be more involved, using this week as a kick start to finding out more

Pupillage Fair 

November is a busy month for the Bar. On 21 November, it will be the first Bar Council Pupillage Fair, which is run in conjunction with the Chancery Bar, although it is for all specialisms. Despite it being the first Pupillage Fair, I am pleased to report that we have more than 1000 students signed up and 46 exhibitors - chambers and training providers - signed up for the fair, which will take place at Lincoln's Inn. While pupillage places are scarce, the aim of the fair is partly to provide more information to those students thinking about a career at the Bar. It also gives chambers the opportunity to meet students with the potential to join the Bar whom chambers might not otherwise meet. 

Direct Access 

Beyond the next few weeks, the Bar Council is ramping up its Direct Access activities. We recently launched the Direct Access Portal - a free to use directory for the public to find Direct Access barristers. To ensure this portal fulfils its full potential, we are marketing the portal to the public and small business community, as well as informing them on the benefits of Direct Access. To be listed on the portal, Direct Access barristers need to have paid their Bar Representation Fee (BRF) which is £100 per year. In addition to a presence on the public portal, they receive the many other benefits of being a fully-signed-up BRF member. 

To support our Direct Access campaign, we are holding Direct Access top up training sessions for barristers to ensure they meet all the necessary requirements to take instructions directly for clients. I urge all those Direct Access barristers who see Direct Access as essential for their work to take up this training. 

Direct access is one way that barristers are adapting to the evolving legal market, to serve their clients and the public interest better. The Bar Council wants to help barristers to take advantage of opportunities to compete, because competition is good for clients and good for justice.

 

Alistair MacDonald QC
Chairman of the Bar