Jan 18

Lies, damned lies, and (the Minstry of Justice’s) statistics

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The day of action on the 6th January 2014 was the first of its kind in 600 years. Barristers stopped working for half of one day in protest at further cuts to their rates of pay. No coincidence that the Government published an ad hoc statistical release about payments to barristers on the 2nd of January 2014.

That release can be found here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/269061/laa-barrister-spend.pdf

The notes on page 5 show the published figures include VAT and all expenses.

Yet Saresh Vara, the Minister for Justice, has touted the figure of £84,000 as the average income for a barrister. This figure includes VAT (20% paid pack to the Treasury) and expenses (roughly 30% of what is left – these expenses include not just travel and professional fees, but payments to clerks who manage a barrister’s administration). Self-employed barristers are paid no pension, maternity or paternity pay. There is no holiday or sick pay. So in reality the £84,000 figure is nearer a salary of £49,000, excluding any pension or employment rights. But even this figure is cherry-picked as it also excludes many of the lowest earners from the Ministry of Justice’s own figures, on the questionable basis they do not work in legal aid full time. The highest figures paid to a very few individuals, usually representing work done over several years (because larger cases can take years to conclude from the first court appearance to sentence and because payments are frequently delayed many months) are of course included.

In contrast the Criminal Bar Association has calculated that the average gross income (i.e. equivalent salary) for a criminal barrister is £27,000 per annum, based on the Ministry of Justice figures. This after years of expensive training to be a key part of the justice system, helping ensure the right people go to prison for the right amount of time.

Put another way, the figure of £84,000 is neither a true average nor representative of true income. It is wholly misleading. On this basis of inclusion of allowances and pension rights, Saresh Vara MP is paid £174,000 per annum (in contrast to the £66,396 published salary for MPs) – not a figure the politicians quote.

These are straightened times and we all accept cuts to public services have to take place, but payments to criminal barristers have not been increased for inflation since 1985 and there are currently cuts in the region of 30% already taking effect: the criminal legal aid budget (the 14th most expensive of 20 European countries) is falling fast. Legal fees in commercial contexts may have risen sharply, but this is not the same at all as rates of pay in the legal aid sector.

Whichever way the figures are considered, the profession is clear the further cuts of between 17 and 30% proposed by the government go too far and will be resisted – it is perhaps difficult to imagine, doctors, teachers or tube drivers accepting a pay cut at all, let alone a 17% one after all. Hopefully the criminal justice system will one day be adequately funded for us all: for the sake of victims, witnesses, defendants, and yes, those that work within it too – otherwise, like America, we will live in a country where court outcomes for the rich are increasingly better than those for the poor.

UPDATE -19th March 2014

The UK Statistics Authority, an independent body, has since criticised the Ministry of Justice’s use of the figures, as can be seen in the report attached to the link below. It just goes to show what seems to be the deliberate misuse of information presented by the government for what looks increasingly like ideologically and not economically-driven cuts to the criminal justice system:

https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/ministry-ticked-off-over-barrister-earnings-claim/5040420.article