Harriet Williams looks at the reality of life as one of Ken Clarke’s ‘fat cat legal aid lawyers’.
Ken Clarke, defending his legal aid bill against further disaster in the Lords, said recently that the bill was about taking money “away from lawyers”, rather than the poor. In saying this he’s playing on the popular perception of law as a lucrative career, and there’s no doubt it can be.
But the idea that top barristers take legal aid cases does not stand up. Small legal aid cases, especially in criminal cases, are the preserve of young barristers, pupils or new tenants, and they get paid a pittance for the work.
As a former barrister, Kenneth Harry Clarke QC, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, knows this, and is exploiting the public’s ignorance about such work to put a positive spin on his failing reforms.
For the legal profession, there is a huge discrepancy between the enormous fees attracted by QCs and more senior barristers, and the desperately low wages of many pupil and junior barristers starting out.
Even if you have got past the twin barriers of going to Oxbridge and public schools – traditionally the places where barristers were mainly drawn from – and have got yourself onto a BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course) at one of the capital’s numerous legal training schools (BPP currently charge £16,450 per year), there are more hurdles ahead.
After you’ve made it past the strenuous pupillage interview – there are currently fewer than 500 pupilages in London, and more than 2,500 applicants for them each year – you find yourself in a job in which you will struggle to survive on for 3-4 years, on top of an average of £36,000 debt.
This is before the government’s new plan for fee rises, coming into force this year.
This is a bleak picture for anyone whose family doesn’t own a yacht and spend winters in Klosters, let alone people from low income families.
Beyond the initial pupillage, if you’re lucky enough to be taken on as a tenant in the chambers you’ve chosen, you’re self employed and get work from solicitors whom you have no legal right to sue if you are not paid.
• Osborne’s slashing of legal aid: Another false economy 10 Jan 2012
I spoke to a barrister doing a third six (part two of the traineeship) at a chambers in the heart of Temple.
John* has been working at the chambers since early October, being sent to court every day to do bail applications, first appearances and work in youth courts, for which he gets paid about £50 per appearance, of which 14 per cent goes to chambers for rent.
So far he has only been paid for 29 out of 109 cases, with one solicitors firm in particular sending him on 20 cases and not paying him at all. Given that the total pay owed to him for this legal aid work adds up to about £1,000, this is a significant amount to him, but a pittance for the solicitors who have been given the money from the legal aid budget.
In addition to being poorly paid, there is a wider problem in that pupils are overworked and exploited for the work they do.
Another pupil, Oliver*, at a criminal chambers, tells me about a fellow pupil who has been given never-ending work, sent to her via email, without instructions or feedback. As a pupillage is supposed to be a learning experience, this is exploiting young people for their work without giving anything back.
Oliver, also on a third-six placement, found out after a year of hard work he wasn’t going to be taken on at his chambers, and was asked to leave immediately, chucked out of the office as if he’d done something wrong. This cavalier treatment of pupils demonstrates their position at the bottom of the food chain in a public school boy’s network.
Thomas*, at a leading criminal chambers, worked hard for a year as a legal clerk, before gaining his prestigious pupillage. On meeting him, his pupil supervisor said “you’re my bitch for the year”.
He is a barrister earning £1,000 per day for cases that his pupil prepares and advises on; Thomas himself lost out on £3,500 despite doing the work because someone didn’t fill out the correct form.
Ken Clarke’s clichéd references to fat cat lawyers play on a public impression that is understandable, given the huge fees QCs and top solicitors attract.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a Tory government once again doing their best to keep the most interesting, respected professions for themselves, and leaving those from less privileged backgrounds to work in Tesco or struggle on the dole, because it‘s simply impossible to live on the fees paid for legal aid, unless you‘re very lucky, or very rich.
*Names have been changed to protect identities