Posted by Milad Shojaei, a pupil barrister at 33 Bedford Row who has been working with Legal Futures Associate Casedo for over two years
As we look towards the end of 2021 and how the Bar has adapted to the harsh realities of the pandemic, the question beckons as to what the future holds. There is immense instability in the legal sector and the prospects for improvement appear uncertain.
Legal aid cuts placing the justice system at the brink of collapse
The controversy surrounding the lack of legal aid threatens to undermine faith in the justice system both externally and within. The ongoing impacts of legal aid cuts have resulted in overworked and underpaid practitioners at the Bar, with many leaving to pursue different careers with greater stability.
Inadequate reimbursement of court fees for acquitted defendants has also resulted in the rise of self-representing litigants and fewer available cases for juniors at the Bar.
This, combined with rising costs and falling fees, has brought about fears that practitioners carrying out family publicly funded work and the criminal Bar may not survive. An optimist might note the increased media attention accrued through individuals like the Secret Barrister, but realistically practitioners will have to continue to accept larger workloads for less money.
What’s more, cuts to legal aid continue to threaten access to justice, with our underfunded legal system placing justice and the rule of law in jeopardy. Decades of budget cuts have resulted in an under-resourced legal aid system that ultimately fails the most marginalised and vulnerable in our societies.
The decline of legal aid has seen the number of unrepresented defendants in the criminal justice system soar. Research and analysis in 2018 by the Institute for Government suggested that 7.7% of defendants were unrepresented at a first appearance, up by 2.8 points since 2010. Given the ramifications of such issues, it is important that we urgently rethink the legal aid system so that justice is not sacrificed on the altar of economic necessity.
Diversity disparity continues to threaten the integrity of the Bar
The Bar Standards Board’s most recent diversity report suggests stable progress in diversity growth as women now constitute 38.2% of the Bar. Similarly, we can see an increase in the percentage of barristers from minority ethnic groups to 14.1%.
However, despite the positive trajectory, there are ongoing issues with diversity that hide beneath the surface. There is still clear evidence of disparity in the percentage of silks and junior barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds. Uneven progress with diversity at the Bar ultimately remains a crucial challenge that requires urgent attention.
The Bar plays a pivotal role in the administration of justice. Its barristers must represent the communities they serve more closely if they are to command trust and encourage an independent legal profession. A diverse population will require diverse lawyers to serve them.
As such, diversity and equality can encourage potential clients to access legal services, resulting in a better consumer experience.
There is strength in diversity as it allows for more cultures, values and gender perspectives to be represented. This will inevitably elevate the public perception of a fair and equal justice system. However, if the Bar fails to reflect the population’s diverse demographics, it will lose credibility among communities as they may feel that their views are not represented.
The absence of diversity at the Bar can also stunt creativity. By promoting similar mindsets, there will be less space for divergent perspectives and experiences. Different barristers from diverse backgrounds can demonstrate unique styles and methodology, leading to better problem-solving models.
As such, diversity is necessary to improve the Bar’s workability. It can promote teamwork capabilities, innovation, and efficiency and help address increasing workloads and other emerging issues in the years to come.
A shortfall of barristers due to falling pupillage opportunities
The pandemic has placed considerable challenges for entry to various sectors, and the Bar is not exempt. The Bar Council has expressed concern regarding the shortage of barristers due to the falling numbers of available pupillages.
The latest figures from the Bar Standards Board illustrates a 35% fall in registered pupillages, with more than 200 recruitment opportunities deferred. With various sets unable to adapt and closing their doors due to the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, we have seen fewer opportunities in an already competitive industry.
This persisting pandemic gap will undoubtedly create a shortfall of barristers available to assist consumers in the coming years.
To ensure that publicly funded work is not disproportionately affected, it is crucial that we carry out a comprehensive review of the problem. This should include bridging the gap created by the pandemic with purposeful recruitment and offering more reasonable fees to existing barristers to retain engagement.
Despite the bleak circumstances, there is still cause for optimism. Pressures on the Bar make the work of those who remain in the profession crucial.
With new advancements in technology, we are gradually seeing an innovative and competitive profession within which new initiatives are being welcomed.
However, to avoid being overwhelmed by anticipated issues in the next decade, it is imperative that we utilise diversity of thought and address long-standing issues to face emerging challenges.