As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, court work dropped by more than half for 75% of chambers
Over 50% of chambers in England and Wales don’t expect to last six to 12 months, a study conducted by the UK Bar Council has found.
The findings of the council’s second Heads of Chambers survey indicated that COVID-19 pandemic struck a strong blow to the bar – with 75% of the 157 chambers surveyed in the study reporting that court work was reduced by more than half. This was spurred by the suspension and adjournment of proceedings, as well as the refusal of courts to conduct hearings remotely.
The Bar Council said that despite the support provided by government measures, 58% of the chambers surveyed “will not last six to 12 months,” while 29% “do not think they will survive more than three to six months.”
While income is down across the board, chambers outside London are feeling the pressure in particular, with 31% expected to go under within six months compared to just 16% for London sets.
“This has serious implications for access to justice, particularly in regions with fewer sets,” the council said.
The study found that even with the implementation of cost-saving measures like furlough schemes, the bar is finding it challenging to stay afloat. Over 71% of the chambers surveyed had already furloughed clerks, while 54% furloughed other staff.
“These findings show that some barristers, especially those doing vital publicly funded work, face an uncertain future and that many do not expect their practices to survive. Like many others who are self-employed, a lot of barristers do not qualify for government support,” said Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC. “Add to that the drastic decline in court work, where barristers play such an important role, and it is no surprise that so many are expecting the worst.”
Moreover, a large percentage of the respondents – nearly 75% – felt that more than 25% of the adjourned hearings and trials that were listed over the last six weeks “could have gone ahead entirely or partly remotely,” the Bar Council said.
The council had obtained feedback from members of the bar “indicating mass or unnecessary adjournments day-to-day,” even though the government reported that it did not have comprehensive data on adjournments associated with COVID-19 in family courts, civil courts, magistrates’ courts and the majority of tribunals.
“The government must act now to ensure that the 86% of criminal barristers' chambers predicting their own demise can survive to help tackle the growing backlog in our criminal justice system,” Pinto said. “Unless the lord chancellor and the Treasury act now to allow more of the self-employed to access government support, who will be there to represent victims and defendants whose cases the government slung in the ‘backlog corner’ long before COVID-19? The government cannot turn a blind eye any longer.”