It has been tempting during the past few months to keep focused on survival and simply to hurl oneself at the immediate problems as they have arisen, day by day. It might be all too easy to consider the aims I set out in December 2019 as irrelevant in the current crisis. But, as I write this column in mid-May, we have already experienced two months of lockdown, and we are raising our sights beyond the near future towards longer-term aims.
One of my goals was to drive greater access to the profession for people from all backgrounds and with different characteristics so that the Bar better reflects the society we serve and, despite the intensity of the virus’ impact on justice, that ambition has never strayed from my thoughts. And so, the Bar Council continues to drive forward our programmes to support a wide range of practitioners – of which more later.
In the immediate future, the existing challenges to the diversity of our profession have been undeniably exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19. But where the future of the profession is in jeopardy, we must not let excellent practitioners from different backgrounds slip under the waterline and disappear.
As the Bar Council’s April survey of the profession found, 71% of the young Bar cannot survive beyond six months without financial aid and we are hammering this stark message home to the government as we continue to make the case. It has been shocking to hear some suggest that the Bar is, and should remain, the province of the wealthy, as though we are playing at access to justice in our spare time. That is not true and nor would it be in the public interest if it were.
As I write, there are still too many barristers being left outside the existing support provided by the government. We have been urging the government to include the most diverse and junior parts of the Bar in the financial assistance schemes they have devised. This is essential if we are to encourage young practitioners and those returning from parental or sick leave, to remain in practice. It is not that these barristers are substantively ineligible for the government’s scheme – quite the opposite: they are well within it. It is simply a matter of providing evidence to remove the risk of fraud, something the Bar Council and chambers can address easily. I am bemused by a government that says it is interested in access to justice and supporting law and order, that says it supports diversity and social mobility, that says it wants a better gender/BAME balance in the senior judiciary, and yet, when faced with an easy way to demonstrate its commitment, declines to take the simplest of steps. I hope by the time you read this that they will have walked the walk.
Let me look to the future with a more optimistic eye: we are continuing our Bar Council initiatives to support and improve everyone’s career. Working in partnership with the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks, we are investigating and promoting best practice for the fair allocation of work – all the more, not less, important when work might be scarce. The Bar Council can provide a lot of support, wellbeing suggestions and recommendations of where to find help in these difficult times.
We are on track to launch the Insider Guide to the Bar very soon. The guide will help those in the first seven years of practice navigate these unfamiliar and arcane waters. We are celebrating the third Employed Bar Awards this month with coverage of the winners in Counsel magazine later in the year. We might even have found a positive from COVID-19 – could the dramatic increase in the use of technology to attend court, potentially have a long-term benefit for flexible working? We are looking into that.
We want to expand the mix of people who can see themselves as possible role leaders in whatever capacity – Head of Chambers, Chair of a Bar Council committee or an SBA – and we want to provide a sustainable, skilled and more varied group of barristers to become members of the senior judiciary of the future, whatever their background and their personal circumstances. These efforts start at the bottom, supporting pupils with the help of the Inns, Circuits and SBAs; they progress through the work of our dynamic Young Barristers’ Committee, with the Bar Council and others supporting initiatives (such as mentoring). Now, despite COVID-19, we are pushing forward with our programme to bring on a more diverse contingent of future leaders of the profession – our aim is to broaden the pool of talented individuals who can lead us in the future.
The programme, which will take a cohort of 36 established juniors each year, is designed to create networks and establish professional relationships to last throughout their careers. We are aiming to do this face-to-face in the autumn and roll it out annually, to get a ripple effect across the wider Bar. Year on year we will see and feel the benefits across chambers, practice areas, different levels of experience, up and down England and Wales. To my mind, that is a note of cheer and cause for celebration at an uncertain time when we could all do with signs of optimism for the future.