Protecting our young – ensuring our future

Young barristers want to be in court but they do not want this at the expense of their health or the expense of their clients, writes Katherine Duncan

Back in March, Counsel asked me to write an article on the work of the Young Barristers’ Committee (YBC) and its ‘First Seven Years’ project. This followed the video of Amanda Pinto QC and I, released on International Women’s Day, talking about our perspectives on what it means to be a woman in the profession.

In the video I mentioned the Accelerator Programme, the Queen’s Counsel Appointments’ funded research undertaken by the Bar Council looking into, among other things, the career progression of women at the Bar. One of its conclusions was that early career advancement in the first seven years of practice (the point at which they are a ‘young barrister’) is a cornerstone for remaining at the Bar when a barrister reaches 10-15 years’ call. This is the point at which retention, of women in particular, is a challenge for the profession.

I had been looking forward to providing Counsel readers with information on the ‘First Seven Years’ and the programme of work we had put together to promote accessibility of advancement within the profession. We have been preparing materials and a training programme to ensure that all young barristers, regardless of background, have access to skills and networks that allow them to progress their career as much as possible in their first seven years.

Since then, life has changed dramatically for the Young Bar, and, like so many other things, that programme has been put on hold while we address the COVID-19 crisis.

I have been working closely with Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar, and Derek Sweeting QC, Vice-Chair of the Bar since the public health crisis began. They, and the rest of the Bar Council, are committed to ensuring that the Young Bar is protected in this crisis. The Bar Council’s recent survey of the profession found that 71% of the Young Bar cannot survive beyond six months without financial aid (Bar Survey Summary Findings April 2020). The sustainability of the profession requires a thriving junior Bar to support it. The Young Bar is the most diverse amongst the profession, and many of us come from non-traditional backgrounds with limited networks to fall back on. The survey also revealed that 39% of BAME barristers were already experiencing financial hardship by the time of the survey deadline (13 April 2020). That number is likely to have increased.

This has to be a temporary measure

I am meeting virtually with the young Bar representatives of the Specialist Bar Associations and Circuits to discuss the challenges faced at this time. In every meeting with young practitioners, access to justice and upholding the rule of law remains a key priority. The message coming out from these meetings is clear: young practitioners want to be back in court and to earn money again, but they do not want this at the expense of their health or the expense of their clients.

While many hearings have had to be conducted remotely during the current national health situation, the YBC is clear that this is a temporary measure under an extreme set of circumstances. The future of the justice system will rely upon efficient use of technology, where appropriate. We remain committed to ensuring that the use of technology in the justice system is carefully scrutinised and subject to evaluation and review. Future generations will be held to what the profession says now about measures taken during this crisis and how we continue to uphold the rule of law. In the Bar Council’s survey, 75% of barrister respondents said they do not believe people are able to access justice at an acceptable level during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 7% think access to justice is currently at acceptable levels.

Safety issues with magistrates’ hearings

The urgent hearings still being held in person in the magistrates’ courts are covered by young barristers. There are still problems with social distancing measures and hygiene. We hear anecdotally of young barristers meeting clients in the cells who say they have the symptoms of COVID-19 and are being told to carry on as normal. Barristers prosecuting urgent lists in the magistrates’ courts are sat in the same courtroom, meeting a number of people throughout the day, where the courtrooms are not regularly cleaned. The Bar Council is raising hygiene concerns directly with HMCTS both publicly and privately, which are then acted upon. The YBC is one of a number of groups looking at how safety can be maintained when in-person hearings return to normal levels.

The Bar Council has announced it will act as a ‘quasi-employer’ for the profession and facilitate COVID-19 tests for those self-employed barristers showing symptoms. The government’s employer referral portal allows employers to refer for testing any essential workers and those whose work cannot be done from home and who are self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms. Those who are living with an essential or other such worker, and who themselves have symptoms, can also get an appointment for testing through this scheme, whether or not the worker has symptoms.

Coming out of this crisis: the YBC’s perspective

It has been heartening to hear how young barristers are supporting their colleagues at this time. Lots of practitioners are taking the opportunity of time out of court to draft articles on remote working. We have seen chambers hosting regular Zoom or Skype meetings and chambers socials to keep in touch with one another. Young barristers are keenly aware of the pressure felt by pupils, and some sets have set up a rota of junior barristers to check in with the pupils every day and to support them in the new ways of working.

Where the Bar goes from here, it is hard to tell. I cannot imagine that this will be the only pandemic this country faces in my lifetime, and now a precedent has been set for lockdown, it seems likely this will happen again. From the YBC’s perspective, it has been hard to find time to take stock of where we are in this crisis and what it means for the Bar and for the Young Bar, when a number of our committee members have been in court in person or in lengthy telephone or video hearings, while adjusting to a daily changing landscape.

At the beginning of the crisis we saw a number of leaders in our profession saying now was not the time for working as per ‘the great traditions of the Bar’, where you carry on working and attending court no matter the personal cost to yourself or your family. When we come out of this crisis, I hope that barristers can remember one of the many lessons learnt during this; that we are not super-human. There is room and space to be an excellent barrister and to also get sick and to need to take care of yourself and your family. We could all be kinder to each other and to ourselves in recognising that it is hard to think logically and creatively when there are health scares, caring responsibilities, financial worries and more playing on our minds.

During this crisis, there has been a cultural shift where we have given ourselves, and each other, permission to prioritise physical and mental health. We have checked in with colleagues more and genuinely asked people ‘How are you doing today?’ and meant it.

In the coming weeks, I hope the YBC can return to working on its various projects and in due course I can write another article on the work undertaken thus far, and the work still to do. In the meantime, I encourage all young barristers to keep up to date with the YBC on Twitter (@YoungBarristers), Instagram (thebarcouncil) and the Bar Council’s website (youngbarhub.com), and to please get in touch if the committee can support you or your colleagues at this time. 

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Katherine Duncan

Katherine Duncan is Chair of the Young Barristers Committee (2020). She specialises in family law at Garden Court Chambers.