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Why should a junior lawyer earn more than a train driver?

Brendan Martin, 8 January 2014

English lawyers went on strike for the first time ever this week, although, being lawyers, they called their half-day walk-out a “mass non-attendance”.

They were protesting about the government’s cuts to the public legal aid budget. According to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), the cuts mean that “the very future of our criminal justice system is in jeopardy”.

Already the famous Tooks Chambers has closed, with this warning from its ‘legendary founder’ Michael Mansfield: “Very soon there will be one law for the rich and one for the poor.”

Mansfield represented the family of murdered black London teenager Stephen Lawrence after police failed to properly investigate the crime. It led to a judicial review, the eventual conviction of the killers, and, along the way, an inquiry that added the term ‘institutional racism’ to British understanding of discrimination.

The legal aid cuts mean “it will be harder for citizens to bring a judicial review,” Mansfield told the Daily Mirror, adding: “If you are wrongfully convicted you will find it increasingly difficult to mount an application for leave to appeal.”

So this is a very serious issue, and the campaign deserves public support. But the lawyers will find it hard to build that support unless they confront what might be called the institutional classism revealed in their public relations effort.

The Financial Times reported CBA chairman (sic) Nigel Lithman as highlighting the plight of his junior colleagues by noting that “a young lawyer was earning less than his train driver father who had moved to England from the West Indies”.

Presumably the comparison is supposed to highlight an obvious injustice, but why shouldn’t an experienced train driver earn more than a junior lawyer?

The Ministry of Justice has defended the legal aid cuts by claiming that the mean salary for criminal barristers is £72,000, and the median £56,000. Those numbers are misleading, says CBA, because they include expenses, overheads and value-added tax. Deducting these would reduce the median to £35,000.

But that is still some 40 per cent above the median wage for all full-time employees in the UK, and the CBA itself does not dispute that about a quarter of its members gross more than £100,000, and a few more than £500,000 from legal aid work alone.

With those numbers at the top end, obviously there are some lawyers, especially young ones, struggling on earnings that hardly reach Living Wage levels.

The same can be said of other recent university graduates, however -- indeed many do much worse than that -- and young people who have not had the benefit of higher education and professional training are on average doing much worse still.

So let’s take outmoded assumptions about relative entitlement out of this argument, particularly since the it looks as though the legal profession should be putting its own house in order by challenging the gross inequalities therein.

Legal aid is an absolutely vital resource for people who would otherwise be denied access to justice, and lawyers who specialise in defending the most vulnerable members of our community perform a vital public service. But the same can be said of train drivers.

If we are to protect access to justice and build a decent future for all working people, and especially the young, it is time to deposit outdated class-based assumptions about relative merit on the same scrapheap as some of our finest lawyers dumped institutional racism.

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