The Challenges facing the Junior Bar

“Young barristers are finding new ways of working to combat the pressures of legal aid cuts, court fee increases, and the heightened costs of training” Louisa Nye

Being a barrister in the early years of practice has always been challenging: there are long nights doing work to prove yourself to your solicitors, clients, and clerks. Not to mention the financial insecurity of managing a practice at the self-employed Bar, where sometimes you will not be paid for work you have done for well over six months.

Now there are the added pressures of the legal aid cuts, which have substantially reduced the work available at the criminal and family Bar. Increases in court fees mean that litigants in the civil sphere have no money to spend on representation: they spend what money they do have on commencing the claim, or decide not to go to court at all. Access to justice is being eroded, which means that litigants are representing themselves or giving up on the law as an avenue to resolve their disputes. This means the work that young barristers used to do in lower value or less complex cases is no longer available.

Why does this matter? Some quarters would say that having fewer lawyers is a good thing. My concern is that these pressures cause the Bar to be less diverse. And if we do not have a diverse and thriving Bar, which the Lord Chancellor has said he would like, we will not have a diverse judiciary in the future. Sadly, the legal aid cuts and court fee increases have caused irreparable damage to our country’s justice system.

Privileged elite

First, the Bar is becoming less diverse because of the under-representation of women and black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups, who tend to practise more in family and criminal law, areas which were grossly affected by the legal aid cuts.

Second, why would a young person decide to go into a profession where they can see that work will not be available, and they will not be able to afford to meet the debt they have incurred in getting there? The cost of the Bar professional training course is now around £17,000, which will be added to the debt that young barristers will have acquired from university, the cost of living, meeting the Inns’ qualifying requirements, and travel expenses. The Inns of Court do what they can and award a substantial amount through scholarships, but the cost of becoming a barrister is still exorbitant. This means that those who do not have an independent income, or whose family cannot afford to assist them, are simply unable to access a career at the Bar. We are in danger of having a Bar that reflects the ‘privileged elite’ of 20 years ago.

New ways of working

So, why would anyone choose to be a barrister? The Bar is still a highly challenging and intellectually rewarding profession. No two cases are the same, and every day in practice (whether at the self-employedor employed Bar) is different.

In the face of all these difficulties, young barristers are finding new ways to work, and different ways to apply their talents and skills. More young barristers are doing secondments, and adding value to firms or companies by assessing risk in cases, providing advice, or dealing with specialised research projects.

Young barristers are branching out into different areas of expertise. Criminal barristers are no longer ‘just’ criminal barristers, but add specialisms in extradition, fraud, or regulatory work to their practices. Civil practitioners are becoming expert arbitrators or mediators, helping litigants to resolve disputes outside the court system.

International work is also providing new opportunities and areas of interest. There are increasingly complex legal crossovers, as the ease of travel and the prevalence of the internet mean that legal conflict issues and different jurisdictions are becoming an important part of everyday practice. Young barristers are perfectly placed to develop these areas of work.

Young barristers are, in my experience, resourceful and determined. They find ways to use their advocacy and analytical skills. The one thing that seems to be true of any barrister is that they are willing to meet a challenge. The challenge for those of us at the forefront of the profession is to help and encourage every young person who has the ability to be a barrister, to see that it remains a vibrant and rewarding profession.

Louisa Nye – Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee

(This article first appeared in Solicitors’ Journal issue: Vol. 160 no. 07 dated 23 February 2016)