When I was asked to write this article I knew that
I did not want to turn it into a marketing exercise bragging about how hard I
work. Everyone knows that barristers have to work hard – particularly juniors
at the legal aid Bar, where we have to pile the cases high to earn a living.
When I looked back at past contributions, I was struck in
particular by Jo Delahunty QC’s. A top silk, she described her 24/7 way of
working as ‘coming at a personal cost’. At the beginning of the piece, she
cautioned: ‘nothing I say should be allowed to fetishise my frankly ridiculous and
unhealthy approach to work.’ She also argued that: ‘Senior members of the Bar
have to give younger members the chance to say ‘no’ to work overload.’
I completely agree with Jo. But I do think that senior
members of the Bar should lead by example, and if the picture of success is
constantly painted as one where work is prioritised above everything else, then
little is going to change.
The concept of ‘wellbeing at the Bar’ is trending at the
moment, which is great. I worry, though, that the wellbeing buzzword does not
always come from a place of genuine concern for barristers, but rather one of
paying lip service to the idea, or in the context of chambers competing for
their Wellbeing at the Bar certificates as a mode of marketing.
I am embroiled in a never-ending battle with my own
‘wellbeing at the Bar’. On the good days, it is the best job in the world,
offering flexibility, intellectual challenge and immense satisfaction. On the
bad days, it leaves me feeling frazzled, anxious and irritable. I am obviously
aiming for more of the good days, while recognising that the bad ones are
sometimes inevitable. But as long as they are exceptional, they are not
incompatible with an overall sense of ‘wellbeing’.
August at the junior legal aid Bar. Ask any barrister in
their first five or six years of practice and they will recount what they have
been told by their clerks since they were a pupil: ‘Don’t go on holiday in
August. Stick around and you will pick up lots of work, as everyone else is on
holiday.’ I have whole-heartedly heeded this advice every August since I
joined the Bar as a pupil in 2015, and on 31 August every year I tell myself:
I practise in mental capacity, community care and housing
law. Many of my cases are urgent. My clients are always ‘vulnerable’ in one way
or another: a child, a care leaver, a survivor of domestic violence, a disabled
adult, a survivor of sexual or physical abuse, a person who is struggling with
their mental health, a survivor of trafficking. Often, they are homeless or on
the brink of homelessness. They are frequently destitute. Many of my clients
have been failed by the State in some way: their care package has been cut,
their services have been closed or they have been refused support that they are
entitled to. They have all had their dignity trodden upon. They would all be
voiceless without the services of their legal aid lawyers.
When my cases reach trial, they are normally short – a few
days maximum. On the whole, my diary is packed with 1 or 2 hour hearings:
largely in London but also in Leeds, Manchester, Lincoln, Wolverhampton,
Bristol, or any other corner of England that has a county court.
I cannot describe a ‘typical’ day because there is no such
thing. Throughout August, however, my days began at 5am, involved a long train
journey to somewhere in England, a packet of mini-cheddars from the court
vending machine for lunch, and crawling into bed at 11pm, with the following
day’s alarm set for 4.45am because I was travelling somewhere even further
Frequently throughout August, I appeared in the Court of
Protection twice a day: one two-hour hearing at 10am and another at 2pm.
On one particular Friday, my client for the 10am hearing
was an 83-year-old man whose local authority had made an application to the
court to place him in a care home, because he had dementia and his wife could
no longer cope with looking after him at home. The previous week, he had jumped
out of a first floor window because he accidentally locked himself into one of
the rooms in their house. Although it was clear from the evidence that it
wasn’t safe for my client to continue living at home, he was adamant that he
wouldn’t go into a care home, so the local authority was seeking the court’s
permission to let specially trained ambulance drivers restrain him in order to
get him there.
Normally in these cases, I’m protected from just how
distressing they are because my client doesn’t attend court. They are usually
detained in a care home or hospital with no interest or physical or mental
ability to attend court, so I am provided with typed instructions from the
Official Solicitor, sanitised by Microsoft Word. In this case, my client did
attend court. Although he had been assessed as lacking the mental capacity to
make decisions about where to live, he was bright and articulate and made it
clear that he did not want to go into a care home.
Nevertheless, the judge decided it was in my client’s best
interests to move to the care home, and for him to be restrained en route if
Outside court, he sat with his head in his hands. He was 83
but looked like a child. Blinking back tears, I reassured him until his social
worker took him back home.
I wanted to go back to chambers to process the morning’s
events but I couldn’t. It was midday and the solicitor for my afternoon case
was due to arrive at 1 o’clock.
By the time I left court it was 4pm. I went back to
chambers as I was on the ‘out of hours rota’ for the evening, so I had to wait
to see if a call came in to make a telephone application to the duty judge in
the Administrative Court.
It being a Friday evening, a call did come in: a
17-year-old victim of child sexual exploitation had found herself street
homeless. She had approached her local Social Services to ask for accommodation
and they had refused. She had nowhere to sleep for the weekend.
I started drafting grounds for judicial review to challenge
the local authority’s failure to accommodate her under s 20 of the Children
Act, and preparing to make a call to the duty judge. Luckily, at 5.03pm, the
local authority gave in and agreed to give her somewhere to stay for the
weekend. I was relieved for the girl and for myself; I was off the hook.
That particular day is an extreme example but most of my
August played out in a similarly busy manner. By the end of the month, I was
exhausted. After two weeks on holiday, I returned with a renewed commitment to
my version of ‘wellbeing at the Bar’.
For me, wellbeing looks like not being in court more than
three times a week, having time to go to a yoga class a few times a week,
cooking dinner at home most nights, taking a walk outside away from my desk
every day, not working past 7pm or at weekends unless I really, really have to,
not working on holiday, having time to properly think about my cases and
breathe between cases – not just do them, one after another. To many
barristers, that might sound like an unattainable utopia but it really
I am obviously not able to achieve those boundaries all the
time because that is the nature of the job, but if I can achieve them most of
the time, I feel happy and fulfilled and my wellbeing is all the better for it.
It is not easy to say no as a junior barrister. There is
constant pressure from the clerks to take on more cases. Senior members of
chambers are frequently looking for juniors to assist them and there is often
an expectation that if you are the chosen one, you will say yes – regardless of
how busy you are, or how urgently their work needs done.
But, as Jo Delahunty said, ‘Senior members of the Bar have
to give younger members the chance to say “no” to work overload.’ The same
applies to clerks.
We are already carrying the weight of our clients’ trauma,
enduring the stress of propping up a legal aid and justice system that is on
its knees and suffering silently through bullying from our opponents and
judges. We do not need the extra burden of worrying about saying ‘no’ to more
work, or the extra layer of anxiety that extreme sleep deprivation provides us
with. Thankfully my clerks respect me saying ‘no’ to overload, but I know that
At this year’s Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards, Rachel
Francis – a family and immigration barrister – on collecting her award, made a
‘call to arms’ to members of our profession. ‘It’s time to acknowledge that
our stress is real, our burnout is real and our vicarious trauma is real,’
Rachel is right. A Certificate for Wellbeing at the Bar
will unfortunately not mean that papers arrive earlier, that deadlines will be
extended, that court days are shortened or legal aid rates increased. What it
should mean is that barristers can say ‘no’ to more work when they have reached
their limits, and not feel judged for taking time out for self-preservation.
That is my call to arms.