In the Media

My plumber gets ?90 an hour. Young barristers can get ?45 a day

PUBLISHED January 9, 2007

Jim Sturman, QC, is not pleased about the publicity over his million-pound legal aid payment. His work has been worth every penny, he says. 

?There are some very spiteful people in this profession. I?ve worked my backside off for 24 years and to have someone say it?s undeserved or a nice earner is...? A small, angry figure holds himself defensively in check.

Barely 5ft 7in, Jim Sturman, QC, is a master of controlled verbal aggression. He is also the first barrister to earn ?1 million from legal aid: ?1,180,000 for the financial year 2004-05.

When the Department for Constitutional Affairs published this figure, Sturman reportedly said that ?most of this has come from a two-year international software piracy case that should never have been prosecuted?. He now explains: ?Some of the press jumped on it saying, ?You earned that much in a year!?. It includes VAT and expenses. It?s work spread over years. I got slated because I was slightly misquoted saying the majority of those earnings came from one case. It was in fact five cases ? they were all huge.?

Sturman, 48, who took silk in 2002, had a modest background: ?My mother worked every hour God sent because my father didn?t support us. We had little money and no TV until I was ten.? His army stepfather then adopted him. After nine schools in nine years, he finally boarded. He hated studying law at university: ?I found it the most stultifying discipline. One tutor threw a paper at me saying it was the worst he?d ever marked and I wouldn?t be there in a year. It gave me the kick up the a*** I needed.? He won a Gray?s Inn scholarship.

?The current reforms may prevent someone like me making it to the top because they can?t afford it,? he says. ?I have had pupils with ?25,000 of debt from their first six months. I remember starting out thinking, ?I?m a Reading University 2:2 graduate going to the Bar. I?ll qualify and then move on to the City?. I didn?t think people like me would make it at the Bar. Carter may push things back to the realm of the privileged with private incomes who play at it.?

In July, when announcing his report on the legal aid system, Lord Carter of Coles said ?it will mean the end of the ?1 million-a-year criminal defence barrister?. ?I fear for junior barristers,? Sturman says. ?When you aren?t in court, you earn nothing and when you are you earn very little. In 1983 I was very grateful to go to the magistrates? court for ?35. People sometimes go there now for ?20. Take off travel, expenses and clerks? fees and it?s very hard to make a living. I carried an overdraft for 20 years. Now, young barristers are paid uneconomic rates. I pay my plumber ?90 an hour, yet a barrister can be paid ?45 for hanging around all day.?

Sturman successfully defended Colin Stagg, acquitted in 1994 of murdering Rachel Nickell. ?A photograph of Stagg, his solicitor and me appeared on the front of The Times. The original is framed in my study. It changed my life dramatically. There were a lot of misconceptions about Stagg. People wrongly thought here was a guilty man who confessed and got off. Virtually every guilty man who?d ever confessed then came to me saying ?get me off? as well.

Suddenly, I had a constant diet of really big cases.?

Outside crime, he has appeared for Jos? Mourinho and John Terry. ?As a sports nut, I feel really privileged. I prosecuted Roy Keane for the Football Association. He was absolutely charming. Premier league barristers do premier league work,? he adds. Like premier league footballers? ?It?s a fair comparison.? He confesses: ?I?m massively, massively insecure. Good people are. Many trade on past success, but good barristers never think to themselves: ?I?m fantastic because I?ve won a particular case.? The really successful advocate has insecurity driving him on ? he wants to do as well in his next case rather than crowing about the last one.?

Sturman turns the spotlight on the media: ?The constant criticism about barristers? fees from the BBC, for example, amazes me. They?re quite willing to pay millions to presenters who work a few hours a day, four days a week and certainly don?t give up their weekends. That?s public money. They don?t work very long hours, or work through the night to finish a speech, or have to cancel their holiday or miss a child?s birthday party. Their diaries are set in stone. They don?t have to stand up and do battle on behalf of people who are genuinely oppressed and sometimes don?t deserve to be in the dock.?

So are lawyers misunderstood? ?It?s fair that we?re under the spotlight. When it?s public money, we have to take it on the chin and explain that every single bill is taxed independently. Sometimes we bunker down, adopting a siege mentality, whereas we should be proud of working hard. We are a very important safeguard between those who may be the authors of their own misfortune and a state that?s ever more draconian. As a profession, we should stand much more proudly and explain what we do.

?Anybody doing legal aid is working for the State. There?s still sneering towards the Criminal Bar from other sections of the law. They don?t know how hard and technical it is ? physically demanding and intellectually challenging. There?s enormous pressure of expectation, sometimes unrealistic, from clients. You?re confronting a tribunal that can be very hostile. You have to approach with courtesy and good manners throughout while persuading a jury that you have a credible case. Those who sneer should wake up. We really are working 24/7 ? those of us that are busy.

?You will not find a client out there who will say anything other than I sweated blood on his case. If the public realise quite how hard we worked and how much pressure we?re under, if they could see me coming in here on a Sunday at 8.30am and sometimes going home at 7pm, putting the kids to bed and then working until midnight, they might actually think ?we won?t get that level of commitment from anybody if we?re going to cap their earnings and not pay them what that deserves?. Everyone would then give up and people would stop doing legally aided work.?