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Career Focus: Criminal Law

Lack of funding in the criminal justice system has historically been a controversial subject with many high-profile criminal barristers arguing that the system is on the brink of collapse. But is it really as stark as it seems?

By Editorial Team. Published 21 July 2023. Last updated 14 August 2023.

Occasionally this reaches national scandal proportions, such as the revelation that prosecutors failed to disclose vital evidence to the defence in high-profile rape cases. The Secret Barrister’s book dissecting the problems in the criminal justice system - Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken - has now sold over 100,000 copies. The book, which has been embraced as a campaigning tool by the anonymous advocate’s colleagues, warns that we can no longer be sure that the criminal courts make a good fit of convicting the guilty and acquitting the innocent.

The basic problem, lawyers say, is austerity. With the government committed to protect spending on areas like international aid and the NHS, other departments have taken the brunt of cuts. The Ministry of Justice’s total spending limit was reduced by around 25% between 2011 and 2019-20. The police and Crown Prosecution Service have lost around a fifth of their funding - and criminal legal aid spending has been hacked by one third.

The resulting pressure on criminal lawyers’ incomes means that practitioners combine high-minded protests about the risk of systemic injustice with more personal concerns about their own livelihoods. A young criminal barrister from the Young Legal Aid Lawyers group says that “I am unable to afford travel, food and rent... there are days where I have to go without or even walk a bit longer to not pay for the extra bus. This is the suffering that those of us at the very junior end are going through.”

Solicitors, too, are feeling the pressure. The Secret Barrister writes that “the relentless slashing of legal aid rates renders it near-impossible for many solicitors to remain financially viable”.

Why, then, would any up-and-coming lawyer choose criminal as a career? One of Scotland’s most senior criminal lawyers, John Scott QC, recently told the Times that: “I am at a stage now where I would probably say to young people ‘look, it’s hugely important and we need the best people doing it, but you would be able to support yourself and your family much better, much more easily, if you did something else'”.

The Bar Council, in a 2020 briefing noted that in 2014 the average net earnings of a criminal barrister were £28,000 after taking off VAT and various expenses. Coincidentally, £28,000 was the average full-time UK salary that year - so what to barristers might seem like poverty looks, to many workers, like a normal wage. “The idea that we are somehow worse off than the average taxpayer,” Chris Daw QC of Lincoln House Chambers (in Manchester) and Serjeants’ Inn Chambers (London) says, “is ludicrous.”

For young lawyers prepared to put in the hours, crime is a perfectly good career move. “This is still the best job in the world,” Daw tells Verdict. “The message I’m trying to get out to students is that if you’re bright, ambitious, hard-working and passionately committed to a career at the criminal bar, it’s there for you. It’s just not going to be given to you on a plate with guaranteed earnings from legal aid.” 



Trainee solicitors and pupil barristers who specialise in crime often start out earning around the profession’s minimum training salary (£21,024 (or £23,703 in London) for trainee solicitors and £17,212 for pupil barristers). As they progress their careers, these figures rise substantially, but with legal aid funding limited for criminal law this will never be an area for those primarily motivated by money. Increasingly as many criminal lawyers progress their careers, they diversify their practice areas, to include other litigation and regulatory work, which often pays substantially more than legal aid work.

High profile criminal lawyers

Kathleen Zellner (of Making a Murderer fame), The Secret Barrister, Robert Rinder (of Judge Rinder fame)

Key elements of the job

Prosecuting or defending offences – everything from pot possession for junior lawyers to murder for senior ones. Nowadays solicitors handle a lot of the basic stuff at the Magistrates’ Court, or “Mags”, while more serious cases before a jury at the Crown Court are usually the preserve of barristers. There is also more lucrative white-collar crime and fraud work, often privately funded.

How to get a foot in the door

A great way of finding out what criminal practice is like is to simply turn up and watch. But bear in mind, that doesn’t show you what it’s like behind the scenes, where solicitors in particular do a lot of their legwork: attending police stations at all hours to advise suspects of their rights or combing through evidence from the Crown Prosecution Service. Most law firms and chambers specialising in criminal law offer ad hoc work experience placements.