81% of chambers will fold within a year, Bar Council survey finds

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A group of male and female judges and lawyers, wearing traditional Bahamian court attire, gather outside a building. — Image by © Kit Kittle/CORBIS

By Jemma Slingo/

https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/

Over half of barristers’ chambers will not survive the next six months without financial aid if the pandemic persists, while 81% will collapse within a year under the current pressures, the Bar Council says today.

According to the representative body, a survey shows that 55% of all chambers cannot survive six months without financial aid if the current circumstances continue, and 81% cannot survive 12 months. The 145 heads of chambers who responded said their main concerns are interrupted court work, an inability to generate income to pay future costs and a lack of cash to pay current costs.

The criminal bar is hardest hit, with 90% of chambers predicting they will fold after 12 months without more financial support. Some 60% are already furloughing clerks and other staff, while just over half are taking urgent measures such as renegotiating or giving notice on their leases.

Pupillage recruitment will also be severely disrupted, the survey suggests. Some 30% of chambers are changing their plans for pupillage starting in 2020 or 2021 and may not take pupils on as planned for the next two years.

The Bar Council said the government’s current financial relief does not address the problems faced by the bar, and will impact social mobility ‘immediately and for the future’. Pupils, junior tenants and those on or returning from parental or adoption leave are particularly badly affected, it said, adding: ‘The publicly funded Bar is more diverse than other areas. Its particular vulnerability means that barristers from more diverse backgrounds (including women and BAME practitioners) are most disadvantaged by the current crisis.’

The Bar Council urged the government to extend its self-employed relief to barristers without 12 months of receipts and to permit them to rely on 2019/2020 tax returns, an idea proposed by newly-qualified barristers this week. It also said that childcare costs should be deductible as expenses of self-employment for the purposes of calculating eligibility for relief, and the Legal Aid Agency must accelerate payments.

It added: ‘The survival of chambers is integral to ensuring access to justice. Financial support is required if the collapse of chambers is to be avoided.’