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Barristers Leaving Criminal Practice

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 17 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to bring forward measures aimed at reducing the number of barristers leaving criminal practice.

My Lords, our plan is more work for criminal barristers at higher fees. We have made radical proposals for wholesale reform of legal aid, provided £150 million more on fees and £20 million more for longer-term reform, and increased sitting days so that the Crown Court can get through more trials. The combined effect of our plans will take expected criminal legal aid spending to £1.2 billion per year.

Does the Minister accept that before this week’s announcement, a decade of underfunding by the Government brought the criminal Bar to near collapse? Criminal advocates, having suffered a 40% real-terms cut in their earnings, were exiting criminal work in droves—a quarter of junior barristers and half of all QCs. Criminal trials were being adjourned for lack of available counsel and it was taking up to five years for cases to come to trial. Therefore, I welcome the Government’s acceptance this week of the Bellamy review recommendations, but why did it take the third threat in eight years by criminal barristers to go on strike before the Government acted? Also, does the Minister understand that it is far from clear that the Government have provided enough money for the remuneration of criminal law barristers to keep them in the system?

My Lords, it did not take the threat of a strike from the Criminal Bar Association for us to respond to Sir Christopher Bellamy’s report, but I hope that our responding in a way which has drawn broad welcome from the Bar Council, the Law Society and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives will mean that the Criminal Bar Association will withdraw its utterly ill-thought-out and unfounded strike proposal.

My Lords, I declare my interests here. Can my noble friend say what further proposals there may be to allow solicitors to appear in the higher courts?

My Lords, solicitors need a higher rights of audience certificate to appear in the higher courts. We are in discussions to ensure that this system is working well. However, as part of our response to Sir Christopher Bellamy’s report, we are looking at opening up more opportunities for legal executives to do more work in the courts, particularly in the higher courts. That would also improve diversity, because the diversity of legal executives is in much better shape than it is for solicitors and quite a lot better than it is for barristers.

My Lords, perhaps the effect of the cuts has been felt most harshly on younger barristers at the very start of the profession. Up to 25% have left the profession over the past five years, despite having done the pupillage and Bar examinations. For them, legal aid has been a lifeline, allowing them to survive and have a decent career. What assessment have the Government made of the effects of these changes on the younger barristers and the likelihood of them staying in the profession?

My Lords, we think that these changes will be a systemic change in legal aid: 3.5 million more people will be eligible for legal aid in magistrates’ courts and 2 million more people will be eligible for civil legal aid. We think that will help the Bar generally. Our other plans—for example, having more online hearings—mean that barristers are not spending money on travel and that a barrister can, for example, drop their children off at school and then attend a hearing 200 miles away.

The Minister has just mentioned travel. Has any thought been given to reimbursing barristers for the cost of travelling to and from the courts in which they are to appear, particularly in the case of junior barristers, for whom a substantial part of the fee is taken up simply by the cost of travelling to and from the court?

The noble and learned Lord is absolutely right. We do look at the cost of travel for barristers. As I have just said, we hope that increased online hearings will mean that travel costs are essentially reduced to zero, with more money therefore going into barristers’ pockets. That is something that we are looking at. We have constant discussions with the judiciary on that. Ultimately, however, whether a hearing is heard in person or online is a decision for the judge, not for Government Ministers.

My Lords, I suspect that industrial action by barristers would get as much public sympathy as industrial action by politicians. I welcome the Minister’s comments, but that was not the influence; the Government thought that it was what they wanted to do anyway. I also suspect that if the Minister had been in post earlier, we might not have seen the appalling LASPO Act, which cut so much legal aid, no doubt contributing to this problem. Following his announcement today, are the Government planning to review the impact of the changes so that they can later assess whether or not they are having the desired impact?

My Lords, as a barrister-politician, I now know where I stand in public esteem. The noble Baroness is right. One of the issues has been that there has not been a means-test review in civil legal aid, for example, for a long time. While we are not proposing to review it annually, we will keep it under review to ensure that the general package keeps in line with where public pay is and where public costs are, to ensure that the underlying principle of access to justice is maintained.