Thursday, 2 January 2014

Earnings of the Criminal Bar: It's all about timing...

With impending strikes across England and Wales by criminal barristers on January 6th, the Ministry of Justice has chosen to use the first working day of 2014 for a not-so-subtle pre-emptive 'strike' of its own. The MoJ has released figures detailing the earnings of criminal barristers in 2012/2013. The timing is clearly relevant. Whilst one might argue that the beginning of the year is a logical time for publishing such information, a search of the database of Government publications in recent years reveals that no such equivalent statistical release has occurred - not at the beginning of the year or, in fact, at all. As such, collating this information has presumably been specifically commissioned with both target (criminal barristers) and timing (prior to their strike) in mind.

The main findings that will likely be highlighted by the Government are the mean and median earnings - £72,000 and £56,000 respectively. Whilst the explicit purpose of the document is to provide the public with an idea of what criminal barristers' earned last year, I would argue that the implict purpose is to suggest that barristers aren't doing too badly financially. After all, £56,000 a year is more than double the average national salary. The logical progression from this conclusion would be  - 'how can barristers justify striking over fee cuts when they earn THAT MUCH??' The timing of this publication strongly suggests that invoking such a train of thought is the intention.

Importantly, the document clearly underlines the dangers of misinterpretation and the caution with which such figures should be treated. Factors that should be considered include: that the figures may represent several years worth of earnings; that VAT and disbursements (such as travelling expenses) need to be considered; that barristers must cover professional overheads (e.g. a proportion payable to their Chambers); and that the majority of barristers are self-employed and must deduct income tax and national insurance contributions from gross earnings. Moreover, other factors not mentioned should be considered. Self-employed barristers do not have state pension provision and so need to account for this from the earnings above. Barristers are also compelled by the Bar Standards Board to take out professional indemnity insurance - another cost to deduct. 

When considering the amounts earned, one must also remember that the work undertaken by barristers varies enormously in complexity. Very High Cost Cases are usually lengthy and technically challenging, representing the most difficult work criminal barristers can undertake. Harder work should mean a higher reward. Finally, barristers - like similar professionals - have trained for many years and undertaken extensive education in order to serve the criminal justice system, building up very large debts in the process. It seems only fair that such commitment, to a profession that many do not have the skill or determination to enter, should lead to a higher than average salary.

If one deducts the proportions above and weighs the indirect factors mentioned, £56,000 (as an average) begins to look a lot more modest. Add to this the stressful and sometimes traumatic nature of the work, and you have a salary that seems to undervalue barristers. The question is - will the Government, in discussing the findings, mention these factors or will they simply highlight the headline figures? One suspects the latter will occur. If so, this will surely be an attempt to undermine the strike action - which the Bar insists is about preserving a functioning justice system rather than protecting their salaries. One must, of course, consider this statement carefully too; it is rare for a group to strike for entirely altruistic reasons. But the implication that 'fat cat' barristers are striking over pay whilst earning large amounts is obviously misleading and underhand. It is also the oldest trick in the book. If the Government choose to pursue this tactic in the guise of balanced statistical analysis, it will surely be a new low.

No comments:

Post a Comment