The fee income of Crown Court legal aid barristers from the Advocated Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) has fallen by 8% in the last two years, new figures have shown.
As overall earnings declined, female and BME defence barristers fared relatively better, with both groups earning on average 3% more from the scheme than their colleagues.
The earnings of QCs were not included in the report, published yesterday by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), on behalf of a joint research group made up of representatives from the Bar Council, Criminal Bar Association, Legal Aid Agency and MoJ.
Of around 4,300 barristers who received some income from the AGFS, only 39% consistently provided “substantial advocacy” over a number of years.
During the financial years 2013-23, 2013-4 and 2014-5, the average gross income of these barristers fell from £69,000 to £65,000. As with other figures for barristers’ earnings, VAT and the cost of chambers are not included.
The smaller group of “notionally full-time” criminal legal aid barristers did better, with fees declining during the period from £97,000 to £90,000. Almost two thirds of this group (64%) earned over £50,000 from the scheme, and a third earned over £100,000.
Experience was not well rewarded by the AGFS. Average fee income increased by around 2% for every five years of experience, equating to a 14% increase over the 35-year career of a Crown Court defence barrister.
Alistair MacDonald QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the report provided “clear evidence” that barristers’ fees for criminal legal aid work had fallen.
“At the very junior end, it is not uncommon for a barrister to put in a hard day’s work at a 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, warned that the diversity of the junior criminal Bar could suffer.
“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.
“Our adversarial system of justice demands that individuals of exceptional ability should work in this challenging area of law. Restricting the diversity of the criminal Bar means we risk losing out on much-needed talent.”