Knackered Briefs: ‘A [very rubbish] job’
21 July 2022
Barrister “strikes” (days of action) are happening across England and Wales. Knackered Briefs is a series of accounts from criminal barristers highlighting the issues associated with the sustained underfunding of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
I remember the Friday of my first week of being ‘on my feet’ in pupillage. I was representing in an Appeal Conviction in the Crown Court. Wigs and gowns, the real deal. I was full of excitement and happy enthusiasm. I was beginning my career at the criminal Bar. After all of the study and hard work, after all of the years looking forward to this moment, here I was, doing the job in court!
I met my opposite number, a barrister of 12 years Call, in the robing room. He was sat slumped in a chair. Our exchange went like this:
Me: ‘Hello, are you in the case of A by any chance?’
Me, with a smile that I hope didn’t betray my nerves: ‘Oh great. Well, so am I. Just to let you know this is my first week on my feet, so go easy on me.’
Him, staring at me and then slowly shaking his head: ‘F***ing s*** job this.’
Me: ‘Excuse me?’
Him: ‘It’s a f***ing s*** job. It feels exciting at your stage. But wait until you get 10 years in and you’re defending paedophiles and rapists for a living, and barely being paid to do it’
And with that he stalked off, leaving me a bit stunned.
‘Don’t you want to be able to afford a house, or to go on holiday?’
I am a junior criminal defence barrister, a few years in. The poor pay is common knowledge, and the dilapidated court infrastructure I have become used to. But what I still find astonishing is the senior voices from within the profession telling you not to do crime. I remember during my law studies when my mentor from my Inn of Court looked shocked when I said I was interested in crime. He said: ‘but how are you going to afford to live. Don’t you want to be able to afford a house, or to go on holiday?’
I know a senior member at one of the most reputable London Chambers. She told me that she views all of her criminal work as ‘pro bono’. She knows it won’t pay her anything meaningful. So she takes on work in other areas of law to pay the bills. And she represents in criminal cases that make the national news! Headline grabbing work, and counting it as ‘pro bono’!
I could cite endless other examples. Meeting Counsel from other areas of law who actually laugh at you for the fees you are being paid to do the job, saying they ‘wouldn’t get out of bed’ for that. Meeting Counsel at the criminal Bar with a worn-out, burnt-out look, who you discover six months later have moved to a completely different career. Resigning yourself to working for free, when you know the written pieces of work required to do a proper job, for example Advices on Evidence or Appeal, Notes on Sentence, applications to exclude evidence, don’t qualify for extra pay.
I’m in debt, borrowing money from my partner and from family
My partner doesn’t sleep at night, worrying about how we’re going to pay for the baby that is on its way. I’m in debt, borrowing money from my partner and from family just to pay my bills. My partner nags me about whether or not I’ve taken on work in other areas yet, and actually tells me to get out of crime. I also know a judge, an actual judge, who used to practice in crime who tells me bluntly to leave. The judge says it doesn’t pay and also that it is not ‘family friendly’, because you are always away from home, in court buildings miles away, routinely exhausted by the travel and the late nights of work, and scarred by the trauma of the more tragic cases.
‘Crisis? What crisis?’