Knackered Briefs: Why do you do it?
3 August 2022
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. Issues which have led to the recent “strikes” (days of action) across England and Wales.
This post is adapted from an original member-only article for The Mill by Dani Cole, which can be read here.
I realised I wanted to become a barrister after the police kettled me. I was at university, and across the country, students were protesting the increase in tuition fees. On that day, the police told students they could leave — but only if they gave their names and addresses, and submitted to being filmed. Those who refused were arrested.
After the demonstration, lawyers working with Green and Black Cross, a grassroots project that gives legal advice to activists and protestors, met with me and other students who had been involved in the demonstrations. I was not arrested or charged for my involvement in the protest, but the lawyers said there could be a legal case.
In 2013, the High Court ruled that the Metropolitan Police officers who took the personal details of Susannah Mengesha — who was at a trade union rally in 2011 as a legal observer — had acted unlawfully. I thought that was amazing, because I was so angry with the police, at how they treated us, but I thought there was nothing we could do about it.
“The delays are ridiculous. The system’s creaking because everything’s falling apart.”
For some, it can be a lengthy and expensive journey to the Bar. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I did a law conversion course in Manchester and then had to do a bar course that would allow me to practise as a barrister. I studied part-time and worked at the Greater Manchester Law Centre. I received a scholarship from the Inner Temple – a professional association for barristers.
The scholarship lifted a financial weight off my shoulders. I was called to the bar in 2019 and joined my chambers in 2021 to begin my pupillage.
The bottom line
In their first three years of the job, the median annual income for a junior barrister is £12,200. Because barristers are freelancers and paid on a per-case basis, income can be sporadic. One month might be very slow, and in another, I might be paid for two years’ worth of work in one day. It’s important to know that it’s variable, but at the moment I’ve got less in my bank account than when I was working 50 hours a week at Costa.
“The trial was scuppered anyway because both the prosecution and defence’s laptops weren’t working.”
The love of the job
It’s not a job that people do for the pay though. The rewards of the job lie elsewhere, for example, I was able to get a suspended sentence for a young man who’d been involved in criminal activity when he was in his mid-teens but was given the chance to tell his story in court, with a full hearing during sentencing, which is quite unusual. He was such a lovely kid and so hopeful about his future. I’m not usually one for crying, but I cried on the journey home from that one.
Alongside the rewards, however, there are also frustrations. When some court staff only talk to me and not my clients about updates about how things are progressing, for example. Sometimes there won’t even be an attempt. The lack of respect really does get to me, because the clients are the people whose lives will be altered, possibly irrevocably, by the outcome.
The criminal justice system
There are other issues too, such as delays that have a human and emotional cost.
One man I was defending had transferred from one solicitor to another. He was receiving legal aid, which meant he didn’t have to pay his fees, but because everything is so stretched, everything is so chaotic, the funding was delayed, and his new lawyers couldn’t work on his case. His trial date edged closer and eventually his lawyers got the news they would get funding. The delays are ridiculous. The system’s creaking because everything’s falling apart.
Another example of which was when I was recently on a train home from court and got a call telling me I had a trial the next morning. I read the casework files overnight, and then picked up the phone to the solicitors first thing in the morning.
“Look, I know we’ve got a trial at 10 o’clock, but this guy needs more evidence.”
I could see that there was CCTV and witness evidence that they did not have, but if given more time, they could prepare and give him a chance. Inside the courtroom, I made my case: “We cannot go on with the trial. It wouldn’t be fair. We’ve got no evidence; we’ve got no witnesses.”
But the decision was made to go ahead. The man I was defending was distraught. But the trial was scuppered anyway because both the prosecution and defence’s laptops weren’t working.
“One way to deal with the low fees is to cram client visits together. It’s an option, but not one I’m willing to take.”
Premium service for a rock-bottom price
My routine varies. If I need to be in court outside of Manchester, possibly Leeds, Sheffield or Liverpool, the commute will take me 90 minutes door-to-door (if I’m lucky). I’m paid £91, but from that fee I will need to buy my train fare, lunch, and pay chambers a percentage. If I’m doing casework and have a day of without travelling, I’ll try to stick to a normal day: at my desk by 9am and finish at 6pm.
I value the time I get to spend with clients. Some of them have complex mental health issues or are vulnerable, so I set time aside to make them feel comfortable and reassured. One way to deal with the low fees is to cram client visits together. It’s an option, but not one I’m willing to take.