The Public Access Bar Association (PABA) has urged the Bar Council to call in its share of the surplus held by QC Appointments (QCA) to support barristers struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.
QCA has built up a £1.35m surplus, which the association said served “no obvious or legitimate purpose”.
QCA is a not-for-profit body owned jointly by the Bar Council and Law Society to organise the annual silk competition.
The cost of application for silk is currently £1,800 + VAT, with a further appointment fee of £3,000 + VAT for successful applicants. Applicants with low incomes (gross fees below £60,000) pay half.
In a letter to Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto, PABA chairman Tim Becker and president Marc Beaumont said: “Whatever the ostensible justification for holding this large fund, without apparent challenge from the Bar Council, it will pale into insignificance when one hears how our members are facing up to the prospect of months without income, or an income derived only from going to courts that present them with insanitary conditions…
“[The surplus] has no obvious or legitimate purpose and should surely be returned to the Bar Council, for whom it is (at least) held on a constructive trust, and returned immediately and with interest. PABA notes with alarm that this has not happened.”
They said the money should be ring-fenced to support those at the Bar affected by the coronavirus.
Ms Pinto said: “It is for the QCA to decide what role it plays to help the Bar. It is not an agency of the Bar Council, but a company limited by guarantee, jointly owned by the Bar Council and the Law Society, which makes its own decisions.
“Both branches of the profession have emphasised that they are not prepared to subsidise QCA; it must cover its costs.”
She explained that the QCA reserves have been broadly the same for five years. Last year QCA introduced a programme to reduce them by providing grants of £75,000 to the Bar Council and the Law Society to support initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in applications for QC.
She said this may be particularly important given that it seemed likely that Covid-19 would “negatively affect diversity in the profession” by having a disproportionate impact on women, because they are more likely than men to have primary caring responsibilities for children.
“The Bar Council‘s work, funded by the QCA grant has an important role in tackling challenges such as those faced by many women at the Bar.”
QCA had no comment.
Meanwhile, Legal Futures understands that the consultant hired by the Bar Council with the QCA money was a friend of a senior member of Bar Council staff taken on without a tender process or even interview.
A Bar Council spokesman said: “The appointment concerned a short-term contract, requiring an expert in the field who was available to start work almost immediately. It was entirely appropriate for a well-qualified person to be appointed to that role without a formal open competition.”
Meanwhile, the Inns of Court announced last week that it was putting together “a package of measures to assist those [barristers] most in need. This includes taking part in, and making immediate contribution towards, an emergency fund that is imminently being launched by the Barristers’ Benevolent Association to distribute funds to barristers in urgent need.
Each inn is also to provide hardship funds primarily for pupils and other junior barristers who are not eligible for either the government assistance for the self-employed or for help from the benevolent association.
In addition, the inns are to reduce chambers’ rental obligations.
Elsewhere, national chambers Clerksroom has joined forces with Bar pro bono charity Advocate to run its pro bono scheme for keyworkers and struggling businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The scheme provides 30 minutes of telephone advice followed up by a short email confirming the advice provided to those who do not have the means to access advice in relation to issues arising out of Covid-19.
It is open to all barristers, including self-employed barristers who are not certified to undertake public access work and employed barristers.
If more pro bono help is required and the barrister cannot provide it, Advocate will try and reallocate the case.
Harry Hodgkin, Clerksroom head of chambers and the scheme co-ordinator, said: “A large number of experienced barristers, covering all areas of work, have rallied to the scheme and offered their support.
“The response has been exceptional. We all want to do as much as we can at this difficult time to help key workers and businesses in need of assistance.”
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