Criminal lawyers throughout the country protested today against proposed cuts in criminal legal aid. The Government’s proposals threaten the viability of defence firms and will discourage newly qualified lawyers from going into this vital area of law.
Most frightening has been the misleading information put out by the government last week in respect of barrister’s pay. It was claimed that 25% of barristers undertaking criminal work earn more than £100,000. This false statistic was taken up with gusto by the press, in particular the Mail and the Express, neither of which bothered to check the veracity of the information.
The figures released took no account whatsoever of either VAT or expenses. They ignored the fact that a fee claimed by one advocate is frequently split between several who took part in the case. No time period was put on the earnings – the longer and more expensive cases may include a claim for work conducted over more than one year.
Nearly all barristers pay substantial fees to run their chambers, covering clerking and secretarial costs as well as rent. Advocates must also pay for their travelling expenses in most cases.
Fee income clearly does not equate to earnings. It is extremely depressing that we live in a society in which our own government is prepared to release misleading statistical information for political purposes. It is perhaps no surprise that sections of the press enthusiastically go along with this.
A strong criminal defence team is absolutely vital in an adversarial court system. Prosecution and defence examine each others’ case, hopefully revealing the truth. If one side is weak, there will be miscarriages of justice. Advocates who are earning at the higher levels are usually those conducting exceptionally complex fraud cases or QC’s who undertake murder cases and similar – this work must be carried out by those of the highest caliber – substantial cuts in pay will drive them elsewhere.