The vast majority of criminal defence lawyers do not earn anywhere like the amount of money that the government and media would have you believe that they do. Sure, my husband earns more than the national average, but it is hardly pots and pots. Not as much as a consultant doctor in the NHS, for example.
We’re all in it together
One thing that has been kept very quiet is that barristers’ wages have gone down a lot since 2010. Some might say they have already done their bit for the deficit. We always know more cuts are coming because we start seeing “fat cat” lawyer stories appearing in the gutter press. Rather than try to get the true facts some lazy journalists simply regurgitate and spin the lies and nonsense that they are fed by the government. And the public swallows it. Heck, I swallowed it! When we first got together I was like the cat that got the cream. I thought I’d bagged myself a rich guy and would never work again. I soon realised I was living in fantasy land.
I work full time too, we couldn’t pay the mortgage if I didn’t. We don’t have any children as yet, but if we did I would have to go back to work, and they would go to state schools. We go skiing once a year, flying Ryan Air, and when we get there we stay in youth hostels or go self catering. We food shop in Lidl and only go to Tesco for things like spices and teabags. We have two cars, mine is 12 years old, his is 7. I have one designer dress that I bought in the House of Fraser sale 18 months ago. We live in a two bedroom house in the London commuter belt. There is no room for an office so when he works from home he sits at the kitchen table.
All work and (little or) no play
Most people work a fixed number of hours per week. Sure, everyone has to stay late from time to time or take a bit of work home at the weekend. My husband does some work most weekday evenings and I can count on one hand the number of weekends where he has not had to work so far this year. When we first moved in together I used to ask him if he had work to do every night. Now I don’t ask anymore. Sometimes he’ll text me on the way home and say he doesn’t have any work to do and would I like to watch a DVD.
Because of how the court system works, and because the Crown Prosecution Service love to dump on them at the last minute, he can’t always plan when he will be working late. I’ve lost count of the amount of times we have had to cancel something at the last minute. Or just refuse it outright. We’ve been invited to a wedding abroad later this year. We’ve had six month’s notice. Still I may have to go on my own because he’ll be in the middle of a big trial, and we can’t afford for him to turn the work down.
When he is in a big trial he will wake up, commute two hours to London, be on his feet talking or sitting down listening and making notes all day, commute two hours home, eat, and start work again. He may not go to bed until after midnight, then the next day he will wake up and do the same again, and again and again until he’s given his closing speech and the jury are out. While he is in a big trial he’s not really present when he is at home. It is like his brain can only cope with the trial and tending to his basic physiological needs, eating, washing, sleeping. There is only limited capacity for idle chat.
I’ve never been to see him in court. But I know that when he’s doing a closing speech he might speak non-stop for a couple of hours. I often do presentations at work, for 15-20 minutes, sometimes to groups of 100 or so people. But because of the nature of my work my audience is usually on side already. They want to hear what I have to say and I have no fear of public speaking. But I couldn’t speak coherently and persuasively on a complicated topic for over an hour. Could you?
The work that I see him do is usually reading. Piles and piles of paper. Folder upon folder. Sometimes the house it littered with it. Or he is watching CCTV video nasties. Over and over again. When he’s reading he’s not reading like you or I read a novel. He is scouring every word of the text for some detail that might help the case. Assimilating huge amounts of information, weighing it up and working out what it all means.
Much has been made of barristers being paid by page count. It is the Crown that decides on what evidence is going to be used and therefore that part of the fee. There might be hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence available but only a portion some of it will be “used”. The rest is “unused” and doesn’t contribute to the page count. Defence lawyers have to read, consider and be able to recall ALL of the evidence, whether the Crown have deemed it “used” or “unused”.
Last year he was on a murder. It was caught on CCTV. He had to study that over and over again at home, frame by frame. Then watch it again and again at court. For days on end. I happened to see the sequence once. I saw the young lad get shot and die once. I found it upsetting. So much more harrowing than watching a shooting on film or tv. Because there is no music, no dialogue to build up the anticipation. One minute they are one of thousands of groups of young people having a great time out on the town. Next one of them is lying dead on the floor and all of their lives have been changed forever. Perhaps you could watch something like that over and over again and not be bothered by it. I couldn’t. Then there are sexual offences…and sexual offences involving children. They too come with still picture and video evidence which has to be studied.
He never complains of being disturbed by it all. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t troubled – when he is doing a nasty trial he will talk about it in his sleep. I’ve had many an unpleasant wake up call. It is bad when his client says he is not guilty. It is worse when he is convinced he is innocent. Can you imagine the stress of holding the course of someone’s life in your hands? Whether they go back to their law abiding lives or get found guilty and go to prison?
The bottom line
Most legal aid lawyers get paid an awful lot less than you think they do, for doing very long hours of intellectually and emotionally challenging work. Oh, and they don’t get paid a regular amount every week or month, like you and I. They only get paid after they have been working on a case for months and months, after the trial is over.
Next time I’ll tell you about a few of the “criminals” he has represented recently, some of the “scumbags” who have entered our lives.