Derailing the myth of ‘fat cat’ barristers

Olivia Miller
Lady Justice

With barristers under the legal aid system announcing a strike over low pay and inadequate legal aid funding, Dr Emma Cooke, a criminologist at the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, comments:

‘It is not unusual to see Criminal Barristers being mentioned in the news. They have been at the forefront of public media vilification for the past two decades, and Tony Blair’s branding of lawyers as ‘fat cats’ in 2001 has been lurking around ever since. For most people, the thought of barristers striking may seem absurd. Yet, people continue to confuse work publicly funded by the state (legal aid) with privately funded work.

‘Following the ongoing industrial action from rail workers, barristers practising in criminal legal aid have followed suit over a long-running dispute over their lack of pay. Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) – a body which represents all practising barristers in England and Wales – have rejected a proposed 15% pay increase from the government following an independent Criminal Legal Aid review arguing that it’s just not enough. Barristers involved in legal aid work at the start of their careers, face a mere average salary of £12,200 after expenses, chambers’ rent, clerks’ fees, tax, insurance and travel. This couldn’t be further from the ‘fat cat’ image presented above.

‘The public side of the profession has undoubtedly been surviving on barristers’ commitment to justice and goodwill and is now creaking more than ever.

‘To the public eye, the profession has always been seen as being elite and well-paid. But the stark reality is far from this when it comes to legal aid work. The iconic gown, wig and briefcase do not always represent a privileged position, rather this uniform continues to conceal the austere reality.

‘Whilst not all superheroes wear capes, in this case they do. In a system which is designed to deliver ‘justice for all’, defence remains pivotal. If the government won’t take sufficient responsibility and educate the general public on the stark differences between publicly and privately funded legal work, then the legal aid practitioners themselves must take matters into their own hands in attempt to uphold justice. Defunding of public services is so ubiquitous in today’s society it’s lost its bite. But it is so incredibly important not to overlook this less recognised area as if the system fails, access to justice is denied for many and the rule of law is not upheld.’

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