Hope and optimism for the year ahead

By Derek Sweeting QC

As I write my first column as Chair of the Bar, it is hard to avoid being drawn back to the year which has passed. It felt long, sometimes bleak, lacking much of what makes life worth living. For some at the Bar it has been a struggle for survival; for all of us it has involved significant changes to how we work and live. The threat to our health and prosperity has yet to disappear. But the hope that an end would come is becoming an expectation; there are reasons for optimism if not for less vigilance.

There have been remarkable efforts on all sides to keep the justice system functioning. The challenges faced have been met with resilience, flexibility and a shared recognition of the need to maintain access to justice. They have also demonstrated the fragility of a system that has been subject to sustained cost cutting and underfunding. That is not, of course, a new development. The sense that we were in a period of decline through neglect was the reason I first became a Bar Council committee member and then stood for election.

My own career has perhaps taken an unusual course; the first 15 years were spent mainly in the Crown Court, mostly on the Midland Circuit, followed by a period where much of my work was more commercial, particularly in the Technology and Construction Court; in the last decade clinical negligence, personal injury and the Iraqi Civilians’ litigation has been the focus. I hope that this background together with some 20 years as a Recorder and Deputy High Court Judge has given me a wide perspective on work at the Bar and our recovery.

With mass vaccination on an unprecedented scale now in prospect, we can at last allow ourselves to take stock and look ahead. The legal landscape has altered significantly. As we leave lockdowns and restrictions, I want to ensure that we go forward using technology strategically, rather than reactively. We know now that we have the means to conduct much of our work remotely; the crucial question is no longer what we can do but what we should do online. That will involve an open, collaborative conversation with the judiciary and government about the qualities of proceedings in person and decisions reached on the basis of evidence and advocacy from those physically present in the courtroom.

The need to ensure that our court system, including its staff and buildings, is funded properly over the long-term could not have become clearer during the pandemic. The funding announced in the Spending Review was a welcome start. The need to reform pay levels and structures for publicly funded work has long been all too evident. The need to do so quickly cannot be overstated.

No reflection on 2020 could fail to touch on race, inequality and discrimination. The events of last May and all that followed highlighted persisting race inequalities in society at large and have given added impetus to efforts to understand and address how these come into play in our profession; particularly around the entry and progression of Black barristers. We must ensure the momentum that has gathered behind confronting these issues and securing permanent change is not lost. The Bar Council’s Race Working Group is the focus of our efforts and, through its inclusion of so many race-related groups across the profession, is well-equipped to lead change towards a Bar that is truly representative of society.

We cannot ignore the impact that the pandemic has had on the ability of those from different backgrounds to survive at the Bar. The data tells a clear story: those most affected by the downturn in work are those without a financial cushion. We must not accept the exclusion of bright talent from the Bar as an inadvertent consequence. I was pleased to recently announce that a number of commercial chambers will be funding criminal pupillages which would otherwise be unavailable as result of COVID-19. Those parts of the Bar that have been least affected and began in the strongest position are not complacent; we are all diminished by a loss of opportunity. Investing in the future of the criminal Bar is a strong statement that the Bar remains a single and collegiate profession.

The rule of law and its central place in our society continues to loom large and has made it onto the public agenda more than once over the year. Upholding and defending the rule of law where necessary is something about which I feel strongly and is a core function of the Bar Council. I very much hope that defending the profession from attacks made for short-term political purposes will not be necessary, but there should be no doubt that there will be a defence if required.

Underlining all of this work are the relationships the Bar Council has with those in the profession – whether they are Bar Council members, Committee members, Specialist Bar Associations, Inns, Circuits – and beyond, across Westminster and Whitehall, the media, think-tanks and more. I intend to consolidate those relationships; to understand fully how we can best support each other and work collaboratively towards the changes we want to see.

Economic and professional difficulties will not evaporate simply because the means to eradicate the virus are now available, but I am confident that in confronting a great emergency, we have discovered strengths that will ensure that the Bar prospers in the months and years ahead. Whether we will also have a period of renewal for our justice system is not entirely in our hands but we at can least work towards that goal with a better, and shared understanding, of what is at stake. 

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Derek Sweeting QC

Derek Sweeting QC is Chair of the Bar for 2021. He is a silk at 7BR.