Alejandra Llorente Tascon said that long trial delays caused by the crisis meant that junior colleagues were facing increasing financial hardship as payments for their work were being held up for increasing lengths of time.
She warned that this was compounding the existing difficulties caused by the low fees they received and that rising numbers of young criminal barristers were finding it impossible to continue as a result.
Ms Tascon, 27, who was brought up on the Patmore Estate in Battersea and attended local state schools after coming to London from Colombia at the age of nine, added that the trend threatened to deplete the Criminal Bar of talent from less affluent backgrounds.
She said that would send efforts to promote diversity into reverse and risk compounding a “disconnect” between criminal barristers and many of those they represented.
Her warning was delivered today on behalf of the Criminal Bar Association, whose chairman James Mulholland QC echoed her concerns. He said that the Criminal Bar — whose reputation has been cited by senior legal figures as one of the key factors in the high standing of English law around the world — was at risk as new talent was either deterred from entering the profession or forced to quit because of growing debts.
Research by the Bar Standards Board this month found that female barristers from ethnic minorities were the lowest paid, while white males earned the most.
Mr Mulholland added: “You have a profession that is dying on its feet because it can’t push the trials through and therefore it can’t get the payments.
“In terms of new blood coming into the profession, those from deprived, disadvantaged backgrounds who have significant student loans are thinking afresh. Not only are there poor remuneration rates, but we also have a system on its knees that it is going to take years to get back to normal and people are saying ‘with my massive debt why go into a profession where my debt is only going to increase?’
“We need to avoid it becoming the rich representing and prosecuting the poor and majority groups prosecuting and defending minorities. I am extraordinarily worried about it.”
Mr Mulholland said one answer to addressing the backlog of trials, which currently stands at around 50,000 cases, was to open more new “Nightingale” courts so that justice could be done more swiftly and barristers paid more quickly for their work. He said fees should also be increased.
Ms Tascon, 27, who is a member of London’s Pump Court Chambers, said she knew of young barristers already leaving the Criminal Bar because they could not afford to continue.
“At the junior end the pay is abysmal. We can barely make ends meet because of how small the fees are and it’s no surprise that people are leaving the Criminal Bar,” she said.
“It feels like we’ve been forgotten. We’re expected to continue as key workers, to travel across the country to make sure justice is administered but we aren’t getting the financial support.
“Even though we’re all doing lots of little hearings, none of these are going to pay until the conclusion of the case, which is often going to be the end of 2021 or 2022.”
Ms Tascon said one answer should be a “complete reform” of fees for work in magistrates’ courts as well as possible payments to compensate for travel costs.
She said the current system often left barristers out of pocket for their work and cited one hearing in which she went to Leicester and earned a £50 fee while incurring a £176 rail bill for her return trip from London.
She added: “In the last month, I have spoken to four or five people who have decided they can’t stay at the Criminal Bar anymore. If we continue this way, diversity is only going to get worse. I also see and hear of prospective applicants saying that they don’t want to come to the Criminal Bar because they don’t want to struggle financially.
“The only people that are going to come into the Criminal Bar are those with financial backing and supportive families that can help them survive. That’s incredibly sad because the Criminal Bar needs people from all walks of life because that’s how we can relate to our clients. If diversity isn’t there we’re going to have a disconnect and that’s not good.”
She added: “It would be a real shame to see the Criminal Bar take a step back because of the financial hardship that the junior end are encountering as a result of fees and the backlog and I fear that’s the direction we’re heading.
“There needs to be a complete reform of fees at magistrates because if people can’t make it beyond that stage then you won’t have anybody to progress. Crown Court has to have a fee increase too and some availability for travel costs to be reclaimed.”
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, warned last week that criminal trials were having to be put off until the end of 2022 because of the backlog of cases He added that “the longer it takes a case to come to trial, the more likely it is that something will go wrong with it” and that more funding was needed.
The Ministry of Justice said 16 new Nightingale courts had been opened to increase the number of trials taking place and that an extra £50million had been made available for criminal legal aid.
A spokesman added that a review was also “under way to look at the long-term sustainability of the sector.”