On Monday 6 January, there was a half day protest outside the Old Bailey and across other criminal courts in the country, as barristers walked out for the first time in their history against £220m proposed cuts to legal aid. The media reacted accordingly, with the right wing press branding protesters ‘the most privileged picket line ever’, focusing on images of a ‘lady barrister clutching a £1,100 Mulberry bag’.
But these cuts are dramatically changing the profession, resulting in the sea change of barristers walking out of courts for the first time ever to protest. So what are some of the reasons young barristers are starting to make a stand by taking direct action? Firstly, the cuts in legal aid will result in an already elitist profession becoming even more difficult to access for the less wealthy in society.
This is not helped the profession being traditionally ‘posh’ and privileged, making barristers a difficult group to feel compassionate for. But the effects of cuts will result in even more unequal access to the profession, as despite an increase in diversity in terms of inclusivity to ethnic minorities and females, there is still a large proportion of barristers from wealthy, privately educated backgrounds.
This is compounded by the increasing costs associated with going to law school, for example to study the law ‘conversion’ course to become a barrister (the BPTC – Bar Professional Training Course) costs £16,500 for a one year course. This is on top of a tripled student debt. Additionally, to become a barrister you have to join one of the 4 ‘Inns’ and sign up to 12 formal dinners, which as well as the need to build up your CV through lots of volunteer or ‘Pro bono’ work, can be extremely costly.
The process of becoming a barrister is hard to navigate without being well educated. For example, following the completion of the BPTC (bar training course) you must apply for a two year Pupillage. But not only is the application stage time consuming, examples of interviews at barristers’ chambers include being asked to use the scenario of a newly formed country, arguing which are the top 15 laws which should be enacted first. Interviewees were then asked to rank these on the spot in importance, a tough process for any graduate.
The cuts in legal aid will affect clients being able to access barristers as less will take on legal aid cases because not only is it a costly, difficult profession to get into, but the end result is a profession with less pay and decreased benefits ultimately leading to less barristers and more potential miscarriages of justice.
This is due in part to the cuts in fees for barristers taking on legal aid (particularly criminal). Case fees face a 30% cut, hitting the criminal legal aid system particularly badly.
This leads to a problem for the profession, as less young people want to take on legal aid cases due to the lack of pay.
So what is the future of the profession looking like for young, aspiring barristers? A tough slog, no more Mulberrys on the picket line, instead an increasingly elitist profession, which can only be accessed by the most wealthy students, well-educated enough to navigate themselves around the pupillage system and wealthy enough to amass the voluntary work packed CV needed to gain a ‘pupillage’ place. Secondly, the cuts in legal aid will undoubtedly also have an impact on the profession, with less barristers being able to take on legal aid cases meaning more people representing themselves. This, in turn will not only change the profession, but also lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice.
But, Justice Alliance promises more protests to come, let’s hope barristers who for the first time ever rose up for justice and what legal aid started for, are inspired to fight on.