Junior Bar Face Increasing Difficulty Getting Barrister Mortgages

Written by Sam Jones on 16 September 2012.

With only 12,000 self employed Barristers in the UK, the statistical chance of success to become a barrister is very small. There is growing criticism of law schools taking tens of thousands of pounds from would be barristers, when their chances of pupillage, let alone tenancy is now minimal. With huge debt in the background, new tenants can face enormous difficulty obtaining Barrister Mortgages given that their existing debts must be factored in to their financial commitments, when it comes to borrowing for their first home.

The cost of the academic stage of training, coupled with the costs of pupillage, despite many Chambers now providing awards, leaves the junior bar in a lot of debt. As a result, in the first few years, as new tenants get established, times can be very tough. Junior Barristers have to deal with these issues whilst at the same time, chasing cases, building their reputation and developing relationships with potential instructing solicitors.

The position of UK lenders and how they view Barristers is steadily changing. Once they were viewed as a high earning profession and good clients, but lending underwriters are increasingly concerned when considering the overall affordability of Barrister mortgages. The major UK Banks will no longer accept the use of Aged Debt, despite these receipts being due for work already completed. They also will rule out using gross income figures or base lending on turnover or projections, given the greater uncertainty within the UK Bar.

The barrister profession, now alongside all other professions, are assessed by Banks based not on the strength of their practice, but rather on actual net profit. On the positive side, there still remain a handful of small building societies, still prepared to take a more holistic view.

The general view of the public is that Barristers are well paid and the press often comments on highly paid QC’s who are small in number. The earnings of these ‘top’ QC’s do not reflect the general profession as a whole. It is a little publicised fact that many criminal Barristers appearing in major Crown Court trials will receive as little as £46.50 for a mention. This mention fee appears not to have increased since the early 1990’s despite inflation in the meantime. A mention involves the case coming before a Judge for what is essentially an important directions hearing on the progress of the trial. There is also evidence on Barristers blogs that a case may be actually prepared fully for trial and if a witness does not attend or the trial is adjourned, for their professional preparation of the papers, travel and advocacy on the day, they will again receive only a £46.50 mention fee.  With Chambers rent deducted from this figure, sometimes by 20%, it is little wonder that many successful barristers are continuing to leave the Bar in droves.

In 2012 there remains a real risk that all the inroads made increasing access to the Bar for those less advantaged will be reversed as the Bar continues its high status profession but with little of the  income trappings to support it.

The last independent survey in 2001 dedicated to the issue of average barrister’s pay, brought shocking reading. Despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, it found that average earnings for a junior Barrister in the first 5 years of practice was between £17-42,000. After 10 years of practice this increased to £41-£79,000 and from this gross income, a number of expenses would be deducted including Chambers rent, subsistence, travel and subscriptions.  

These figures have little resemblance to the views of the public and the position of  junior barristers is now worsening as they carry ever increasing debt. It is no wonder that the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) members recently voted by 90% to take direct action on low and late fees. This may include for the first time strike action. The Bar has never been a radical hotbed of direct action, but it is clear that frustrations are now starting to spill over.

The danger for the Bar is shattering the public myth that they receive ‘high pay’ as this will erode the status of a ‘Barrister’ overnight. When necessity dictates, the Bar appears no longer to have any option.

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