THE image of Ireland's millionaire barristers is a "myth", with some unable to pay fees and forced to seek social welfare benefits, they say.
It is understood that almost one in 10 barristers has left or is on the point of leaving the profession due to lack of work.
One barrister told the Sunday Independent that "a huge number" of people are leaving the law. He said levels of work had fallen for a variety of reasons including cuts to legal aid that reduced the amount of work for criminal barristers and fewer criminal cases being brought to trial; while cases of a type that had previously been tried in the Circuit Court were increasingly being dealt with at District Court level without barristers.
In addition, since the setting up of the Injuries Board to settle insurance and compensation claims out of court in 2004, the amount of these cases coming before courts had dropped dramatically.
"There are rumours of huge numbers of people leaving. The annual Bar Council fees for barristers, juniors with experience, are around €5,000 or €6,000. Then there is insurance and the costs of books. You have instances where trials are set for dates and you set two or three weeks aside and then it is delayed. You are unemployed. The courts also sit for only 30 weeks a year and you have no work for two months of the summer.
"I doubt if there would be any public sympathy given the newspaper coverage of the fees a small number of barristers were earning, say in tribunals of inquiry.
"But a barrister may have sat on a tribunal or two and earned big fees but then have nothing. Your income is gone because you devoted yourself to that, maybe for years."
Another spoke of colleagues who had had worked at the Bar for years being forced to go to seek income support from the Department of Social Welfare.
"I understand there are 200 to 250 being forced to quit out of 2,300. I know people who haven't been paid in years. I know there is little sympathy for barristers and solicitors but who is going to be there to stand up for people's rights in court when they can't work?
"There was stuff in the papers a few years ago that the average earnings for a junior counsel was €100,000 and €200,000 for a senior and that attracted a lot of people to join the profession. But many of them will tell you now that was nonsense. Yes, there are a few people earning big money but it's very mean for most of us."
Earlier this month it emerged that some barristers were being paid more than half a million euros a year by the Attorney-General, several of them for fighting asylum applications on behalf of the State. But, other counsel say the figures give a distorted view of a profession that is being hit by the recession and the more general cut backs in State and private legal work.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter's proposed Legal Services Bill, which will increase regulatory costs for barristers, will also have a severe impact – particularly on junior barristers and lead to big firms taking over much of the work done by independent counsel.
The Bar Council, in its submission on the Bill to the Department of Justice said the proposals on regulatory costs were likely to prove "excessive" and would "disproportionately affect members of the Bar".