More than half of barristers’ chambers will go out of business within six months if they do not receive financial support from the government during the coronavirus crisis, the Bar Council has warned.
The results of a survey of heads of chambers painted a bleak future for the Bar if the current conditions persist.
The Bar Council has been urging the government to introduce further targeted financial support to ensure the sustainability of the Bar, particularly in light of the coronavirus crisis.
Heads of chambers at 145 of the 262 sets with five or more members have responded to date, and identified interruption to court work, the inability to generate income to pay future costs, and lack of cash flow as their primary concerns.
Some 55% said their chambers could not survive six months without financial aid if the current circumstances were to persist, rising to 81% who could not go on for a year.
The figures for the criminal Bar – which has been hit hardest by the crisis – were 67% and 90% respectively.
The survey found that 60% of criminal sets were already furloughing clerks and/or other staff, while 51% were taking other urgent measures, such as renegotiating or giving notice on leases.
However, fewer than 25% of all chambers (27% of criminal chambers) plan to take up the government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme at this point; the Bar Council said there was “considerable uncertainty” over whether chambers qualified for the scheme, its terms and the level of resultant debt.
The Bar Council said: “The survival of chambers is integral to ensuring access to justice. Financial support is required if the collapse of chambers is to be avoided.”
Nearly a third of sets (30%) were already changing their plans for pupillage starting in 2020 or 2021, with a further 24% unsure about their plans.
The Bar Council pointed out that the financial relief on offer excluded pupils and the most junior tenants (starting tenancy in 2019); those on or returning from parental or adoption leave who may lack tax returns for the 2018/2019 tax year or have very low income over the relevant period; and practitioners whose gross income exceeds £50,000 and have high childcare costs – which are not deductible from profits – will not be eligible for relief.
The Bar Council said the government should extend self-employed relief to those groups above without 12 months of receipts; permit them to rely on other methods to prove their status and earnings, such as 2019/2020 tax returns, letters from chambers, fewer months of receipts, or their practising certificates; and allow barristers to deduct childcare costs as expenses of self-employment for the purposes of calculating eligibility for relief.
It warned that juniors within the first three years of practice were particularly vulnerable if chambers failed as they were prohibited from practising independently, while the publicly funded Bar – which is more diverse than other areas – was particularly vulnerable, meaning that “barristers from more diverse backgrounds (including women and BAME practitioners) are most disadvantaged by the current crisis”.
It also called on the legal aid agency to enable accelerated payment before the end of a case, for work done, “as a matter of priority”.
“However, this is only a short-term solution. The AGFS model means that payment is contingent on trial. The lack of trials means that advocates will struggle in the medium term even if their aged debt is paid immediately.”
Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC said: “We continue to urge the Ministry of Justice and government to give immediate support to the Bar, especially those in the early stages of their practice and those doing publicly funded work.
“Whilst the measures introduced last week by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to help the self-employed were welcome, the self-employed Bar and chambers have needs that have not been addressed.”