Barristers set to pay the price for BSB performance problems

Barristers: PC rise limited to 5%

The poor performance of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) is set to hit barristers in the pocket as it seeks to increase salaries to overcome recruitment and retention difficulties.

However, a proposed 9% increase in their practising certificate fee (PCF) will be reduced to 5% by using reserves and money set aside to tackle the Bar Council’s defined pension scheme deficit.

The General Council of Bar (GCB) – which encompasses the representative body, the Bar Council, and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) – said the increase, which would not apply to the lowest band (barristers earning £30,000 or below), would help grow income from £17.2m to £18.5m.

The BSB, which would receive just over 70% of this, has had what it recently described as an “extremely challenging year”. It emerged earlier this month that the Legal Services Board is considering formal action over the shortcomings.

In a consultation on the GCB’s draft 2023-4 budget and PCF fees, the Bar Council said salary costs would rise by 16% at the BSB in the next financial year, from £5.8m to £6.7m, even though the regulator was proposing “no change in the number of its people”.

This included an inflation rise and a “market supplement” for legal regulatory roles.

The board of the BSB believed that, while it “does not need to pay top dollar among regulators to attract and retain good people”, it did need to “take pay off the table as a positive disincentive to joining or staying at the BSB”.

The GCB said the regulator decided on the pay and reward increases after getting independent advice, which showed that pay at the BSB lagged “by nearly 20%” beneath the median benchmark for equivalent roles at other regulators.

As a result, the organisation was “experiencing severe difficulty in recruiting and retaining people with the skills and of the calibre the organisation needs”, which “in turn, is detracting from performance and has, for example, been a significant factor in BSB’s struggle to pick up the pace of its investigative work”.

The voluntary staff turnover rate had risen to 21% this year, “well in excess of many other regulators and above a level compatible with effective operation for a small organisation”.

The failure rate for external recruitment campaigns was running at 52% this year, and it was taking just under 17 weeks to fill roles, compared to 11 weeks the year before.

The Bar Council stressed that it could not accept or reject the BSB’s budget, but only seek further information.

It was “concerned” that the BSB’s answer to capacity issues was “more, better paid staff”, and had challenged it to “provide clear evidence that the root cause of the recruiting and retention problems is pay, as opposed to a combination of other causes, of which pay might well be one”.

Unless a fresh approach was taken by the BSB, the Bar Council could not “be assured that the BSB budget is ‘reasonable’” and had “compromised with the BSB on the budget for this year only”.

On the PCF rise itself, the Bar Council said that along with the BSB’s salary rises, general inflation and expenditure to improve cyber security were factors.

The “projected increase in recurrent operational expenditure” for 2023-4 was estimated at 10%.

The GCB added that the latest defined benefit pension scheme valuation had “moved from a deficit to a surplus” and meant that the annual £1.3m contribution to the scheme, under a recovery plan, was not needed for the next three years, allowing the release of “half of the earmarked money” to limit the PCF increase.

The consultation closes on 13 January, with the Bar Council keen to receive as many responses from barristers as possible.

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