Six in 10 barristers, rising to 80% of those doing publicly funded work, have taken on personal debt or used savings to get through Covid-19, Bar Council research has found.
With nearly three-quarters (72%) still experiencing a significant reduction in new fee income – the median reduction was 25-30% – a quarter have also taken on unspecified additional paid work to make ends meet.
A quarter of those of the publicly funded Bar have taken on debt of more than £20,000, with the figure 17% for all of the 1,344 self-employed barristers who responded,
Nearly a fifth (18%) of self-employed barristers actively wanted to leave the profession.
The third survey of the Bar since the start of the pandemic found signs of recovery, with court work picking up, and workload and fee income gradually returning to normal levels, even though interruption to court work was still the biggest problem.
“However, barristers remain stressed, weary and worried about the sustainability of their profession,” the Bar Council said.
The survey found they were now typically working just over 40 hours a week, and 16% are working fewer than 18 hours.
Before the pandemic, 59% of barristers were working over 50 hours per week and 1% fewer than 18 hours. Half of respondents felt more stressed than usual.
The Bar Council said the impact of the continued lack of access to work was not being felt evenly across the profession.
Those who earnt under £30,000 last year were seeing the highest reduction in hours worked, at 50%. Three in 10 of this group were unsure whether they would still be practising next year.
Around half (48%) of barristers from ethnic minority or mixed backgrounds were experiencing financial hardship and 72% have at some point during the pandemic, compared to 32% and 59% respective of White respondents.
However, there were no notable differences between men and women’s experiences.
There has been a turnaround for those under seven years in practice, however. While they were struggling financially at a greater rate than the rest of the Bar last summer, now a quarter (25%) were experiencing financial hardship compared to 35% of the Bar over eight years in practice.
Unsurprisingly, the publicly funded Bar was struggling most of all, with 84% of barristers still billing less than pre-Covid; 43% of the publicly funded Bar said their billing remains down by over half.
A fifth of the publicly funded Bar were unsure whether they will renew their practising certificates in 2021, down from 29% in the last survey in July.
With widespread concerns amongst lawyers and others in the justice system that the courts are not a safe working environment, 84% of those polled had safety concerns, often finding courts dirty and poorly ventilated, with Covid-19 safety measures not consistently enforced.
Some 35% had worked in court under extended Covid operating hours, of whom 18% felt they were unable to perform at their best.
Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC said the findings sent “a stark message that many barristers have reached breaking point”.
He said: “Despite tentative signs of recovery, a lack of government support means that many barristers remain deeply concerned about their own financial prospects and the future of their profession.
“The survey uncovers the reality of working in the courts and highlights safety concerns about poor ventilation and cleanliness.
“The state of the publicly funded Bar is particularly worrying, with barristers forced to take on significant amounts of debt to prop up an underfunded justice system and working to the point of exhaustion to keep afloat.
“Barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately suffering financially, which threatens to drive talent away and undo progress on diversity at the Bar… It is imperative that barristers are urgently given the support they need to ensure that justice remains accessible to all.”