Three in 10 chambers do not think they will survive more than six months as Covid-19 continues to hammer them, with pupils also set to be badly affected, Bar Council research has warned.
It said that, despite chambers making considerable savings, other efficiencies and full use of the furlough scheme, “the Bar is facing an existential threat”.
Some 157 of the 343 heads of chambers surveyed responded. Even with the support of current government measures – 71% of chambers have furloughed clerks, and a further 54% have furloughed other staff – 29% did not think their chambers would survive more than three to six months, and 58% said the end could come in six to 12 months.
Chambers outside London were suffering significantly more than in London.
The only slight positive was that the figures were not as awful as they were when the Bar Council surveyed heads of chambers at the end of March, when they were 55% and 81% respectively.
Three-quarters of chambers have seen court work reduced by over half since the pandemic – although many considered that hearings had been adjourned when they could have gone ahead entirely or partly remotely – while almost two-thirds reported that fee income from new work had reduced by over 40%.
The publicly funded Bar was in an “even more desperate state”, the Bar Council said. A quarter of chambers doing mainly criminal legal aid work have seen their income reduce by over 80%, rising to 84% whose income has dropped by at least 40%. The figures were 18% and 75% for family legal aid sets, while a third of those doing mainly civil legal aid work recorded a fall of over 40%.
As a result, nearly nine in 10 (86%) of sets that receive over half their income from publicly funded criminal work expect to go under within a year, along with 69% of family legal aid sets.
The Bar Council also found that 22% of chambers have delayed the start of pupillages for 2020, while 27% have suspended recruitment of pupils for this year or next, with a further 26% keeping their pupillage plans under review.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large majority (72%) had even greater concerns about the sustainability of the justice system than they had before Covid-19.
The Bar Council has been lobbying hard for the government to change the way the Covid-19 support schemes work so that barristers can benefit, for example raising the threshold of self-employed relief, allowing greater flexibility in the evidence to demonstrate that a barrister is eligible for the self-employed scheme, and including the Bar in the exemption from business rates.
However, to date these have fallen on deaf ears. Chair Amanda Pinto QC said: “Like many others who are self-employed, a lot of barristers do not qualify for government support. Add to that the drastic decline in court work and it is no surprise that so many are expecting the worst.
“The government must act now to ensure that the 86% of criminal barristers’ chambers predicting their own demise, can survive to help tackle the growing backlog in our criminal justice system.
“Unless the Lord Chancellor and the Treasury act now to allow more of the self-employed to access government support, who will be there to represent victims and defendants whose cases the government slung in the ‘backlog corner’ long before Covid-19? The government cannot turn a blind eye any longer.”
Meanwhile, the government did yesterday announce a further £142m in funding for the courts to speed up technological improvements and modernise courtrooms.
Combined with £48m already set aside this year, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said there would in all be £153m for improvements to court and tribunal buildings, “the biggest single investment in maintenance of the court estate for over 20 years”.
Over 100 courts will see refurbishments, with at least 2,250 jobs created in the process nationwide, while 750 courtrooms will be given the facility to hold remote hearings within six months.
The MoJ said an extra £140m would also go on the prison estate to install temporary prison cells, repair and refurbish prisons, approved premises and young offender institutions, and improve IT in jails.