The fee income of Crown Court legal aid barristers from the Advocated Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) has fallen by 8% in the last two years, according to new figures.
As overall earnings declined, female and BME defence barristers fared relatively better, with both groups earning on average 3% more from the scheme than their colleagues.
The earnings of QCs were not included in the report that was published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), on behalf of a joint research group comprising representatives from the Bar Council, Criminal Bar Association, Legal Aid Agency and MoJ.
Only 39% of 4,300 barristers who received some income from the AGFS consistently provided “substantial advocacy” over a number of years.
During the financial years 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15, the average gross income of these barristers fell from £69,000 to £65,000, not including VAT and the cost of chambers.
The smaller group of “notionally full-time” criminal legal aid barristers did better, with fees declining during the period from £97,000 to £90,000. Almost two thirds of this group (64%) earned over £50,000 from the scheme, and a third earned in excess of £100,000.
Interestingly, average fee income increased by around 2% for every five years of experience, equating to a 14% increase over the 35-year career of a Crown Court defence barrister.
Alistair MacDonald QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the report provided “clear evidence” that barristers’ fees for criminal legal aid work had fallen. “At the very junior end, it is not uncommon for a barrister to put in a hard day’s work at a magistrates’ court and still fail to make the minimum wage. This report also shows that the payment structure provides little scope for career progression for criminal barristers.
“It takes many years of practice and training at the Bar to prosecute and defend complex criminal cases, but if it is unaffordable for young barristers to pursue this line of work, we will find cases collapsing due to a lack of experienced counsel.”
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