Crime still doesn't pay for many at the Bar

17 December 2015

Chairman of the Bar, Alistair MacDonald QC has responded to a report published today by the Ministry of Justice[1] on the fees paid to junior barristers for Crown Court defence legal aid work under the Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS). 

Alistair MacDonald QC said:"This report provides clear evidence that barristers' fees for criminal legal aid work have fallen in recent years owing to fee cuts. 

"Average annual fee earnings from Crown Court legal aid cases for barristers who are 'most engaged' in this type of work is £56,000.[2] From this gross figure it is necessary to deduct expenses, chambers' fees and pension contributions. It must also be remembered that, as self-employed individuals, barristers receive no holiday or sick pay. This results in a net income which is way below that of professions which require similar levels of qualification and expertise, such as doctors. The criminal Bar also demands frequent evening and weekend work. 

"At the very junior end, it is not uncommon for a barrister to put in a hard day's work at a magistrates' court and still fail to make the minimum wage. 

"This report also shows that the payment structure provides little scope for career progression for criminal barristers. 

"It takes many years of practice and training at the Bar to prosecute and defend complex criminal cases, but if it is unaffordable for young barristers to pursue this line of work, we will find cases collapsing due to a lack of experienced counsel. 

"The review of fees paid to the junior criminal Bar supports the Bar Council's recent proposals for barristers' earnings to reflect their on-the-job experience." 

Sam Mercer, Head of Equality and Diversity at the Bar Council said: "The concern is that diversity of the junior criminal Bar will suffer. A low, flat, pay structure exacerbates the difficulties faced by talented female barristers who have to pay for childcare and it is a disincentive to those from modest financial backgrounds struggling with student debt. Our adversarial system of justice demands that individuals of exceptional ability should work in this challenging area of law. Restricting the diversity of the criminal Bar means we risk losing out on much needed talent." 

Interpreting the figures: How much do barristers actually earn? 

Earnings figures for barristers should be interpreted with care.  As the report on barristers' fees makes clear, there is an increasing gap in earnings between those who undertake 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. 

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. 

Examples of earnings 

The report states that barristers 'most engaged' on Crown Court legal aid cases, which are the most serious cases, received a median fee income of £56k in 2014-15, which is a reduction from £61k in 2012-13. To qualify as a barrister takes between 5 and 6 years of academic and post-graduate study in addition to professional training, during which trainees incur large debts from tuition fees and expenses. 

Research and Data Working Group

The Research and Data Working Group was composed of representatives of the Bar Council, Criminal Bar Association, Legal Aid Agency and Ministry of Justice. The Research and Data Working Group publication,The composition and remuneration of junior barristers under the Advocates Graduated Fees Scheme in criminal legal aid, reports on Crown Court defence legal aid work paid under the Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS). 


Notes to Editors

1. Further information is available from the Bar Council Press Office on 020 7222 2525 and .

2. The Bar Council represents barristers in England and Wales. It promotes: 

  • The Bar's high quality specialist advocacy and advisory services
  • Fair access to justice for all
  • The highest standards of ethics, equality and diversity across the profession, and
  • The development of business opportunities for barristers at home and abroad.

The General Council of the Bar is the Approved Regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. It discharges its regulatory functions through the independent Bar Standards Board

[1] The Research and Data Working Group, 'The composition and remuneration of junior barristers under the Advocates Graduated Fees Scheme in criminal legal aid'

[2] Barristers must pay VAT from their fees, which should be deducted in order to calculate a barrister's actual earnings. However this figure already excludes VAT