Study finds trainee barristers struggling under mounting debt

Trainee barristers are being hit by the twin pressures of mounting debts and cuts in legal aid rates, a comprehensive study of the junior bar has found.

Conducted by Professor Joanna Shapland and Dr Angela Sorsby of Sheffield University, the study on those who were called to the bar in 1998 follows up a 1997 piece of research on the same subject.

The latest study revealed that becoming a barrister comes at a high price. Just under a third of respondents had 10,000 of debt at the time of qualification, while for one in 10 the figure was 20,000.

While most respondents in commercial practice were able to recover from their financial difficulties, those in common law chambers or chambers specialising in crime were still having problems due to the level of fees available to the publicly-funded bar.

Junior barristers were also increasingly finding themselves forced to specialise. The report noted that junior barristers now have a more restricted range of experience, due primarily to the increased specialisation of chambers.It does mean that the decision on pupillage is now effectively determining specialisation, said the report.

There was strong endorsement of a skills-based BVC. A minority of students did either pro bono work or a placement on their course, with the majority of them finding it helpful. Perhaps as a result of this, one of the difficulties highlighted by those who were surveyed was getting to grips with court procedures.

Respondents now see continuing professional development (CPD) as a normal part of professional life, although the 12 qualifying sessions were not generally found helpful.

Shapland commented: This survey shows some significant changes from 1997 changes which are important for the future of the bar and the delivery of legal services to the public.

Survey findings

  • Just under 33 per cent of new barristers are more than 10,000 in debt, and 10 per cent were more than 20,000 in debt as a result of the cost of qualification.

  • Forty-six per cent of those interviewed said the level of public legally-aided fees was a major problem more so than in the 1997 study.

  • Six per cent of respondents said they had personally experienced problems of racial discrimination at the bar.

  • Sixty per cent said they found the Inns of Court not very useful.

  • Thirty-five per cent of female respondents said sexual discrimination was a problem, but this has fallen from 51 per cent in 1997.