The Bar Council has warned that young barristers could find it unaffordable to pursue criminal work after a government report revealed that fees for legally aided work are falling by an average of 4% a year.
The report on the composition and remuneration of junior barristers under the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme in criminal legal aid work, shows that between 2012-13 and 2014-15 fees dropped by 8%.
According to the report, produced by the Bar Council and the Ministry of Justice, the median fee income for advocates in 2014-15 was £56,000, which according to the Bar Council amounts to an equivalent salary of about £28,000, after deducting expenses and chambers fees.
The report said that the data implies that there are more advocates with lower fee earnings, with 39% of advocates earning fees of less than £50,000.
It also revealed that for every five years of additional experience, a barrister's fees increase by just 2%.
Alistair MacDonald QC, chair of the Bar Council, said the median fee level represented ‘little more than the national average wage’, and is below the salaries of professions requiring similar levels of qualification and experience, such as doctors.
He said: ‘At the very junior end, it is not uncommon for a barrister to put in a hard day’s work at the 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.’
Sam Mercer, head of equality and diversity at the Bar Council, said diversity of the junior criminal bar could suffer as a result of the low fee levels.
He said: ‘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.’
He added that by restricting diversity at the criminal bar, there is a risk of losing out on ‘much needed talent’.
But the statistics showed that black, Asian and minority ethnic barristers earn on average 3% higher fees than white British barristers. Meanwhile, after adjusting for work volume, female barristers earned 3% more than their male counterparts.