A point made to me by a barrister recently when I mentioned I was about to do a Clive Anderson programme on legal aid has been making me think about distributional impact of legal aid cuts across the profession and the impact of those on sustainability. He said words to the effect that, there’s something wrong with a package of cuts which hits housing solicitors on £25,000 a year harder than criminal QCs earning £300,000 – 400,000 a year. (I do not know whether he is talking about bar earnings pre- or post overheads but the point seems to stand either way). Of course he is not comparing like with like. If we need QCs we need to pay them more than most of the other lawyers in the system but a key question should be how much more? This is not principally a matter of equity across the professions but question about sustainability. If we can distribute more of the pain to broader shoulders we may mitigate the damage caused by legal aid cuts. Housing law solicitors are facing the decimation of their funding. Senior criminal barristers are facing cuts of a much more manageable order.
As far as I am aware no one has done a comparative analysis of legal aid earnings across the profession. At only one point is this discussed in the Green Paper (a discussion of base criminal rates, at para. 7.13). It can be read as implying that barrister rates are higher than solicitors (depending on how one reads the words ‘to an extent’):
“Although the base rates for barristers are already significantly higher than those for solicitors, this is balanced to an extent by the fact that enhancements are not available.”
It should also be noted in this context that barrister overheads are likely to be significantly lower, further emphasizing the potential differential between solicitors and barristers. Whether such differences are justified is not simply a matter of comparing rates but given the plans to make across the board cuts in remuneration levels account needs to be taken of the relative earnings of each sector. It may be that the Bar could bear more of the pain than is currently proposed. This is not primarily a matter of equity between the different professional groupings, but about seeking to ensure that the cuts fall on the broadest shoulders, limiting damage to the whole supplier base and ensuring the damage to the sustainability of ours system is as limited as possible.