A critical shortage of criminal barristers doing rape and serious sexual offence (RASSO) cases looks set to get worse, a landmark survey has revealed – with poor remuneration and wellbeing driving the looming exodus.

The Criminal Bar Association conducted a survey this year to understand why there are not enough barristers to do RASSO work. The survey received 780 responses.

Six in 10 prosecutors and five in 10 defence barristers blamed insufficient pay for refusing to do RASSO work. Half refused due to poor wellbeing. Nearly two-thirds of prosecutors will not be reapplying to remain on Crown Prosecution Service panels. Two-thirds of defence counsel want to quit.

Barristers typically spend between 100-200 hours on a case, in addition to the days covering the trial.

In written evidence submitted to the House of Commons justice select committee in 2021, the CBA said the fee for all work done by prosecution counsel in a rape case that resulted in multiple guilty pleas worked out at around £43 per hour – before other expenses, such as chambers rent and national insurance, are taken out.

A mass exodus of specialist barristers would have dire consequences for rape complainants and defendants: the CBA said the average wait for a bailed rape trial to conclude since an alleged offence is around five-and-a-half years. Trial dates for offences charged in 2022 are reportedly being set for late 2026.

CBA chair Tana Adkin KC said: ‘Doing nothing to increase RASSO fees is not an option unless we want to accept that rape and serious sexual offence trials will continue to be delayed for years, repeatedly postponed on the day because there is no barrister to prosecute or defend. The human cost for victims of these crimes as well as innocent defendants is beyond financial measure.’

Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC said horrifying experiences lie behind each RASSO case. ‘This takes its toll on anyone doing the essential work to put these cases to a fair trial. The publicly funded criminal Bar does brilliant work in hugely difficult circumstances. The Bar Council will work with the government and the CBA to seek to do whatever is needed to support and grow this limited group of barristers doing this important work. Financial investment in what is a fundamental public service is, however, an essential part of any solution.’

The criminal bar will hold a national meeting with members on 5 March to discuss ‘next steps’.

A government spokesperson said: ‘Barristers do vital work delivering justice for victims and ensuring trials are fair for defendants which is why we have increased funding for barristers’ criminal legal aid fees by 15%, which we expect will boost a typical criminal barrister’s earnings by nearly £7,000 extra per year. We have also increased fees for those doing pre-recorded cross examinations as part of our action to better support victims and see more rape cases reaching court, with an increase of over 50% in adult rape prosecutions in the latest year.’

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