Barristers' pupils win legal right to the minimum wage

Click to follow
HUNDREDS OF unpaid trainee barristers won the right to be paid the national minimum wage yesterday.

A High Court judge ruled that pupils, many of whom receive little or nothing from their chambers and have to rely on parental support or earnings from part-time employment, are covered by the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act.

Mr Justice Sullivan said that trainee barristers were "working under contracts of apprenticeship" within the meaning of the legislation. The claim was brought by pupil Rebecca Edmonds, 30, from south London, in a "friendly" test case against her head of chambers, Michael Lawson QC.

The case follows a legal opinion sent to all heads of chambers in April, whichwarned that pupil barristers over the age of 26 might be covered by the legislation. As a significant proportion of pupils are over 26, many could now be, on average, pounds 8,000 a year better off.

Mr Lawson's chambers, based in Essex Street, central London, had opposed the claim, arguing that Ms Edmonds' unpaid pupillage did not amount to a legally binding contract. Yesterday's ruling applies only to pupils over the age of 26 - those under that age are excluded from the Act by provisions relating to young apprentices - and Mr Lawson was given leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Ms Edmonds was selected by the legal profession to bring the test case - backed by the Bar Council - over the status of pupils, who must spend 12 months with a practice of barristers before they can enter the profession. The Bar Council wanted to know whether chambers were obliged under the Act to pay pupils at least the national minimum of pounds 3.60 per hour. Although the Bar Council has recommended a payment of pounds 6,000 a year, 43 per cent of pupils were either unfunded or paid below that level.

However, some trainee barristers feel that if chambers are now forced to fund all pupils over 26 years old, the number of places will be reduced.

The Bar Council chairman, Dan Brennan QC, said after the judgment that the council had promoted the test case to clarify a point of law with far-reaching implications for the profession. "It would have been intolerable for a profession such as ours to leave in a state of complete uncertainty the application of a fundamental law to pupillage training," he said.