BSB outlines concern over post-virus ‘virtual’ chambers

Sweeting: Mounting evidence of impact across the Bar

Some chambers may choose to continue operating virtually once the Covid-19 crisis passes, with “significant implications” for their support services and collegiality, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) heard yesterday.

The BSB’s full board – meeting remotely – was also told of “mounting evidence” of the impact of the pandemic on areas of the Bar other than criminal practitioners.

A paper before the board said the BSB has begun to analyse the longer-term implications of the emergency, with four current priorities:

  • The future supply of barristers if current pressures cause pupillages to be withdrawn or some barristers feel that they must leave the profession;
  • The future of chambers and the infrastructure of support chambers provide, including for pupillage, if remote working becomes more common, superseding physical chambers;
  • The training and continuing professional development consequences if many more hearings are held remotely in future; and
  • The consequences of remote working and the pressures of the crisis for the well-being of barristers.

It said the early evidence on the supply of pupillage places was mixed. “The Bar Council survey undertaken at the beginning of April indicated that 30% of chambers are changing their plans for pupillage starting in 2020 or 2021 (and will not be taking pupils as planned in 2020 or 2021).

“We have also, however, heard of chambers which are more optimistic and planning to take on additional pupils.”

The BSB has issued its own survey and aims to gather further intelligence through the annual regulatory return, which has been delayed until the autumn.

“If the evidence is that there is likely to be a significant fall in pupil places, we shall consider what action we and the Bar Council might take to sustain supply.”

The paper referenced the Bar Council survey showing how much pressure lockdown was putting on chambers, with 50% indicating that they could not survive for six months without government support.

“It must be a possibility that, as restrictions are lifted, some chambers elect for financial and other reasons to continue to operate virtually in the light of their experience during the crisis.

“This would potentially have significant implications for many of the support services and collegiality provided by chambers, included for support for pupils and for diversity…

“Similarly, many court hearings are now being held remotely; this practice may continue as the crisis subsides, particularly as backlogs are cleared. Indeed, some changes to ways of working in the courts may become permanent.

“If so, this would raise significant issues for continuing professional development, particularly, perhaps, for older barristers with less experience of the technologies involved.”

The BSB last month unveiled some limited costs savings to aid the profession, and the paper considered the likely implications of the coronavirus on the BSB’s future income.

The income was “reasonably secure” for this year because practising fees of £10.3m are based on barristers’ incomes in the calendar year 2019, and they can pay them in two instalments.

Its other income – from Bar course enrolments, examinations and other sources (£1.5m) is also mostly accounted for this year.

“We can, however, expect both sources of income to come under pressure for 2021/22, although just how much pressure is hard to predict when there is continuing uncertainty about the duration of current restrictions on economic activity and on travel.

“We can be sure barristers’ incomes will be badly hit in the second quarter of this calendar year, particularly for the criminal Bar with courts suspended, but we cannot call the scale of any rebound in the second half of the year.

“Because of this uncertainty, we have agreed with the Bar Council on the need for regular surveys of chambers to take stock of changes in actual and prospective barrister incomes.”

Board member Derek Sweeting QC stressed that it was not just the criminal Bar facing major problems. “There is mounting evidence that the effect on other areas of the Bar is likely to be very substantial,” he said.

Research published this week by the Personal Injuries Bar Association found that hearing numbers during lockdown had halved, and Mr Sweeting said the impact on areas such as Chancery practice was likely to emerge in the longer term, affecting “areas that actually produce a lot of the income at the Bar”.

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