None of you will need reminding of the current challenges we face in the justice system. Successive Chairs of the Bar and Bar leaders have continued to challenge the government to provide sufficient funding. We have repeatedly spelt out the consequential damage to the public interest by not repairing and modernising the court estate or making the publicly funded part of the profession sustainable.

These problems exist in all jurisdictions. We are all wrestling with the right balance of ‘remote’ and ‘in person’ as we manage reduced capacity and struggle to tackle backlogs. In crime the problem is particularly acute, and the public is rightly increasingly unimpressed by the way it is served. The Bar Council has been very clear – we need immediate investment in the criminal justice system, an uplift in fees as set out by the Bellamy Review, and a series of system changes in line with the Bellamy recommendations.

I know colleagues are frustrated and angry about the slow pace of change. My hope is that we are on the path towards rebuilding, restoring, and refunding the system. As we make this journey it is important for us to remain positive about the thousands of hard-working people who struggle on. It is also important not to be relentlessly negative as we only further discourage students from considering what remains an immensely important career. Amid all the challenges there may be some positive signs.

By the time you read this, I hope that the Ministry of Justice public commitment to lay a Statutory Instrument before Parliament closes for summer will have transformed into a formal Ministerial announcement. This will hopefully bring in fee uplifts by the end of September. On 22 June the Lord Chancellor said this would mean a 15% increase in fees for AGFS, as set out in the consultation which closed on 8 June. This increase is a welcome first step, but many important problems remain to be solved in the next stage of reform.

We will continue to push for clarity on the composition, scope, and remit of the proposed Advisory Board. Ultimately the data and evidence will tell its own tale. If younger practitioners continue to flee criminal practice then more money will be needed to improve recruitment and retention.

This year we have seen an increase in the frequency and tone of political attacks on lawyers. Soon after the invasion of Ukraine some politicians accused lawyers of being enablers of oligarchs associated with the Kremlin. The Bar Council continues to explore what work barristers are doing in the field of sanctions. My impression, shared with the Law Society, is that many barristers and solicitors have withdrawn entirely from this field of work, as a result of a combination of principled and practical problems.

More recently disputes around immigration law have seen further attacks. In a particular low point, the Prime Minister accused lawyers of ‘abetting the work of criminal gangs’. This claim is completely unwarranted and unfair, and such comments seek to undermine the entire profession and the rule of law. It seems there is a pattern here – of attacking lawyers who are maintaining arguments in relation to policy that the government doesn’t like, and it’s a form of bullying that cannot be tolerated. I was pleased the Bar Council and Law Society of England and Wales were able to work together to reject this appalling and irresponsible language.

But while we rightly claim the protection afforded by the cab rank rule, each of us must remember that we have a responsibility not to associate ourselves with our client’s interests. If we fail to remember this rule, we undermine our vaunted independence and expose ourselves and our colleagues – the whole profession – to such political attacks.

New Bar Council data has revealed that 239 courts in England and Wales have closed in the last 12 years. There are no courts open in 373 parliamentary constituencies and in 155 council areas. The current picture is laid bare in an interactive map called the Access to Justice dashboard that is available on the Bar Council website.

We know there is an increasing demand for access to local public services, including access to justice, but the closure of hundreds of courts means that people must travel further and for longer, and waiting lists and backlogs have grown. Of course we have to be measured when we criticise, because lessons learned in the pandemic about technology and the role of ‘remote’ may enable the courts and tribunals to reduce some backlogs without (re)opening many buildings.

In some types of work there is considerable public support for remote hearings to be used extensively. But we must be vigilant to ensure that access to justice does not become a postcode lottery, and we need new funding to rebuild and modernise the crumbling court estate, to appoint enough judges in all jurisdictions and to deliver wider access to legal aid. If this is not done, and people cannot access justice quickly and efficiently, they will lose confidence that the law will help them resolve family, property, employment and financial disputes.

This is an unprecedented time for us, both as individuals and as a profession. We are under enormous pressure and it’s essential that we support one another. The Vice Chair of the Bar, Nick Vineall QC, and I were delighted to spend two days in Cardiff visiting the Wales and Chester Circuit. Thank you for the warmth of the welcome and for your time. Practitioners young and old across England and Wales share so much and it was a pleasure to speak with and listen to you all.