There has been much in the press recently regarding how much barristers can expect to receive from their criminal work - many figures of which I feel are totally misleading. The best way to illustrate this is with a personal example which shows that in the line of duty many barristers work for very little, or even nothing at all.
Mr Smith (not his real name), a person of good character was working as a general support officer for a London housing association. His job involved moving items from one place to another, general maintenance work as well as other assorted tasks which he may be given to perform. Problems arose when four laptop computers went missing from their server room. An investigation commenced, he was suspended, the police brought in and charges and a dismissal followed in quick succession.
He appeared before the magistrate's court, elected trial by jury and the case was duly committed to the Crown court where I attended all the hearings. Essentially, he admitted taking the computers from the server room, but said that he had dropped them off at another location within the company. Further, he did this on the direct instructions left for him by another within the company. The prosecution case was somewhat different. They contended that the housing association had a strict policy regarding the movements of technical equipment, with requests for transfers being in a particular form, documented and being issued by a certain department alone. They said that as the relevant department had not made a proper and documented request, Mr Smith could not have received any such request and he must therefore be lying.
After two years of legal battles, the prosecution offered no evidence and Mr Smith left court an innocent man. During the course of this matter I had attended court on seven occasions, drafted a defence statement, drafted submissions re disclosure, prepared jury bundles, considered Mr Smith's instructions and perused literally thousands of emails as well as preparing for trial twice. Conservatively, I imagine the case took about 60 hours of preparation spread amongst evenings and weekends, together with the actual seven days of court work. My fee paid for all of the above - £194.
Paragraph 9, Schedule 1 of the remuneration regulations provides that where a defendant elects for the case to be tried in the Crown Court and subsequently the case does not proceed to trial, either by reason of guilty pleas or otherwise, a fixed fee of £194 will be payable - no matter how much work is involved.
The rationale for this rule is obvious. Crown Court trials can be expensive. Penalising advocates whose clients elect Crown Court trials is designed to incentivise advocates to persuade clients to plead guilty, or stay within the Magistrates Court. If they don't, the advocate knows he will lose money. To my mind, a system which builds in a conflict of interest between the advocates pay and his professional duty to his client is wrong.
What's worse, are the current proposals to transform legal aid which embrace such incentives and seek to impose them throughout the system, introducing measures which reward a quick result over the right result. It seems that justice must no longer be seen to be done, but seen to be cheap.
It costs me £10.60 a day to get to Southwark Crown Court by tube. I had to pay £100 to a fellow member of chambers who covered my double booked PCMH. Out of the £194, I have to pay my chambers and clerks a total of 14 per cent - £27.16. We do not get paid for preparation or for out of court work. We do not get paid for considering unused material, however voluminous. Looking on the bright side however, although I was paid nothing for the preparation, that beats what I was paid for my court work where I had to pay for the privilege of working. My fee for the court work was a kingly -£7.36. That's right I pay for the privilege of working.
The truth is, often it is a privilege to do this job. In securing a not guilty verdict for an innocent man, one has the rare opportunity to impact on lives in a positive way. Is it so wrong though, to expect to be paid something for doing such work? In doing this work, do I deserve to be called a fat cat? Is it really fair, or in any way justifiable to cut our fees a further 17.5-30% if the latest legal aid 'reforms' go through?