I have repeatedly asked for people who want to challenge the views I express to write to me and I will print what they send, providing it is sensible and that I can verify that they are genuine. So, when it happens, it would be churlish to ignore it. What appears below has been sent to me by someone who saw the article in Legal Week – where I replied to some complaints about the criminal Bar.
I have their permission to interject occasionally – I have put my comments in red type. Because it is quite a long response I am publishing it in two parts. I think it’s quite persuasive – as Lord Keynes famously said, “When the facts alter, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” So, I am thinking.
I must admit that, prior to reading the article mentioned above, I had never heard of you. And having reviewed your blog, I have to say, you seem like a decent bloke (thank you) – well aware of the challenges facing young people seeking pupillage and the infuriating stance of BVC providers.
But unfortunately that doesn’t change the fact that my first reading of your article last month made my blood boil. And I notice that you have, recently, requested someone submit a response, with “real facts and identifiable sources”, to counter your assessment of the situation at the criminal bar.
Well I am not, alas, a practitioner, and thus unable to comment on the attitude of ushers, life in chambers, or the loss-leader culture.
However, it seems you are throwing down this gauntlet on the basis of certain accusations that you are “out of touch”. And what I can do, I believe – through reference to the real facts of my own experience and the identifiable source of, well, basic maths – is to provide the reasoning behind this accusation. In doing so, I will underscore the flawed premise of your article.
The sweeping comments with I take issue are:
1. That pupillage awards ensure pupils can meet essential costs (I said this or something very close to it);
2. That it is feasible to maintain one’s livelihood on a very low income for a sustainable period (and this) and;
3. That anyone who disagrees with these deductions is money-grabbing, shallow and lacking appreciation of the true value of the profession (I’m not sure I said this, although I think it is true of some people).
So, I have taken the liberty of assessing the merits of your statements.
Firstly, are pupillage awards at the criminal bar sufficient to “ensure that a pupil can pay their rent, travel and eat without too much worry”? Well according to the statistics the basic award at the criminal bar for a pupil could be as little as £10,000 (this is accurate).
So what are the costs? Well, a quick search for a Zone 2 flat-share on Gumtree London informs us that even the most basic single room will cost the tenant, on average, £500 per calendar month, or £6083 per annum. That, of course, is not including bills. Let’s assume our pupil shares with four others. Council tax in Zone 2 would amount, on average, to £15 per month. Meanwhile, money comparison websites can give us an average monthly figure for heating and electricity of £20, and the average Thames Water yearly bill gives us another £5 per month. The – let’s face it, for the modern pupil – essential internet connection fee adds a further minimum of £5. The equally obligatory mobile phone, another £30. That all amounts to an additional annual cost of £912.50.
The cost of a Zone 1 & 2 travel card is presently listed by Transport for London as £1,032 per annum. I will assume that the pupil is never required to travel to Zone 3, or to Zone 4… or Surrey… or Kent…
As for food, I defy even the most stringent budgeter to sustain a weekly grocery shop amounting to less than £7 per day, or £50 per week, in London – another £2,607. That amounts to total yearly outgoings of £10,635, which – hey presto – already surpasses the lowest award of £10,000.
This is before allowing for any other costs such as hygiene products, clothes (which would include court-worthy suits), any sort of emergency costs, or – God forbid – a social life, including the obligatory drinks with chambers.
But it is not enough to view pupillage as an isolated event. The BVC is of significant cost to any individual. Unless you are privy to some third party source of financial support, the only option for many a student is the professional development loan. More on my own experience later, but for now I will disclose that the bank loan I took to enable me to pay the course fees and cover one year’s living expenses in London, which was specifically tailored for BVC students, was for £25,000 (which suggests a total living expense for the year of £13,000 without repayments of the loan as BVC fees were about £12k).
There would be a brief repayment holiday on my loan, but ultimately the terms required a minimum repayment of £410 per month. Add this cost to his monthly outgoings, and our pupil is suddenly short of around £460 per month to feed and house himself.
Perhaps we can propose a box under London Bridge?
So how about the case of, as you say, the “almost terminally unfortunate pupil”, who is unable to “earn proper money” between the ages of 25 and 30? Your statement that we would “only” be waiting 5 years for a decent, sensible wage seems to insinuate that it would be frivolous to expect otherwise – surely we can survive without a Mercedes until we’re in our early thirties?
Well I’m afraid that, for those of us without another means of financial support, life simply isn’t that luxurious. It would not be a case of holding out for life’s perks – it would be a constant struggle to make ends meet (this seems a weak point to me – making ends meet is a struggle for many young people).
To save further argument, I will ignore the “anecdotal” evidence that I have heard from various sources, including close personal friends, as well as Alex Deane’s article, regarding the difficulties of receiving fair remuneration as a junior practitioner. And unfortunately, I was unable to find further analysis of the Bar Council statistics you cite as your frame of reference (the most useful reference to those statistics when googling “barristers’ earnings” was your article!). Try http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/trainingandeducation/CareersHome/Funding/WhatBarristersEarn/ which is where I got my figures, although the link now seems to be broken.
So I will assume our junior is expected to live on a mean of the lower average – or £20,000.
Accounting for tax, such an income would leave our junior an extra £30, monthly, over and above his predicted essential outgoings, for those five years he awaits his “proper wage” (although some years will be better and you can set off your professional expenses against tax which alters the equation considerably). Not to mention an added repayment of around £50 per month to the Student Loans Company through earning over £15,000. And let’s not forget that this would come on top of an already turbulent 12 – 18 months in negative figures – leading, possibly, to further loan repayments.
Would the satisfaction of the work vindicate our struggle? Yes. Would we pursue our passion regardless? Absolutely. If it were an option, I certainly would do so. But the only means by which I, personally, could maintain this position would be by sinking myself further and further into debt. Even if this were a viable option, it is unlikely to be a realistic one in the current financial climate.
And this brings me to your final assertion, as I proposed would be addressed – that those of us who bemoan the state of pupillage awards and income at the criminal bar have little sense of the true value of the vocation, seek only material riches, and probably were not good enough to outshine the competition in any event.
Well, forgive me if I have misread the tone of your statements, but you seem to have overlooked a fundamental point. The lack of pecuniary reward in the earlier years of practice at the criminal bar does not deter only those who would seek to undertake it in order to glory in its riches. It also deters – and in fact, prohibits – some very talented and passionate candidates who do not have access to a significant amount of alternative financial backing. I’m flabbergasted as to how your article could so succinctly dismiss this possibility.
Well, I said that I would evidence my argument with reference to my own background. This is my experience. I graduated Durham University with a good 2:1 in law and some sensible extra-curricular experience. I also waitressed throughout my time at university in order to pay my outgoings. Thereafter, I spent a year working for a small but significant criminal law firm who managed several high profile cases, also volunteering in justice policy research and in court.
(It is probably worth noting at this stage that my wage with the firm was £12,000 per annum. I was living outside of London at this time, yet still found it necessary to supplement my income through part time waitressing.) I graduated the BVC having narrowly missed an outstanding, but with outstanding grades in advocacy. And, following that summer’s OLPAS round, I had ten pupillage interviews lined up with criminal sets.
I attended none of these interviews. Quite simply, I did the math (That’s a shame for the Bar).
There are issues here about which we could quarrel, and I would like to see the maths reworked with professional expenses deducted, but it does begin to look as if – in London at any rate – the minimum award isn’t enough.
I will publish Part 2 later in the week – and tell you what I have done about this communication. Comments are welcome – and thank you to my anonymous correspondent, who took the trouble to tell me rationally why I was talking nonsense. They could be a Judge 🙂