The future for the Bar is “bleak” if work streams and earnings do not improve, with over half of barristers now working less than 18 hours a week, the Bar Council has warned.
However, it revealed that the government has agreed some changes to help criminal legal aid barristers access payments earlier than usual.
In its latest research on the impact of the coronavirus crisis, the Bar’s representative body said work and the ability to earn money has “dramatically disappeared” for many barristers, with over half fearing for their future in the profession.
Those barristers from more diverse backgrounds were disproportionately affected.
The survey of 3,470 barristers said that, before the crisis, 60% worked more than 50 hours a week, but now only 7% do because of the drop in work caused by Covid-19.
Over half of the barristers surveyed now work less than 18 hours per week, compared to just 1% before the pandemic.
This meant that, without financial aid, 56% of barristers could not survive in their chambers for six months, rising to 77% who could not survive a year. The figures were even higher for those up to seven years in practice and more dramatic still for the publicly funded Bar.
Some 30% of those earning half or more of their income from legal aid could not survive three months without financial aid, rising to 89% who could not make a year.
Without financial aid, 87% of criminal barristers did not expect still to be in practice by October 2020.
An earlier survey of heads of chambers revealed that more than half of chambers would go out of business within six months if they did not receive financial support from the government.
Nearly a third (30%) of barristers have already experienced financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 and a further 53% expect to in the near future – one in seven self-employed barristers were applying for the government’s self-employment income support scheme, but only 5% for the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme.
“There is considerable reluctance to take on further debt when it is unclear when and how it can be paid back,” the Bar Council said.
It went on to argue that diversity and social mobility at the Bar were likely to decline with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and state-educated barristers “doubly hit” as they were more likely to do legal aid work and face financial pressures.
“Many women who are pregnant, or are on or have just returned to work from parental leave, expressed very serious concern about their ability to remain in the profession as a result of the downturn in their work and income.”
Most barristers agreed that people were unable to access justice at an acceptable level during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC said many civil and family cases were being adjourned “for no apparently good reason”.
In the absence of data from the courts service, she said the evidence from the Bar suggested many hearings were being adjourned rather than taking place remotely, which should be the default position.
“This is a genuine concern for the delivery of justice and for the sustainability of the profession.”
She said she has twice met Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland in the past week to highlight the need for more support for the Bar, such as 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.
Ms Pinto said Mr Buckland has in the meantime agreed to change the Legal Aid Agency regulations for hardship payments for criminal defence work.
This means that the coronavirus situation is accepted as evidence of hardship, without more; barristers owed £450 or more by the agency can apply for it in advance of any normal trigger point; and barristers can invoice a month, rather than six months, after they are owed £450 or more.
The statutory instrument should be passed at the end of the week, with payments starting from early May.
Ms Pinto added: “We can’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore the ramifications this virus has for the future of justice, which affects the public in a direct way, day in, day out. Legal issues cannot be put off indefinitely.
“If we fall into the trap of routinely delaying hearings, adding to the ever-growing backlog of cases and taking work away from those whose livelihoods depend on it, we might very well find there are no barristers left to help pick up the pieces of the justice system after the crisis subsides.
“Then access to justice in England and Wales will be in real trouble. Our findings highlight the fear that this is already happening.”