How to: remain healthy as a chambers

During coronavirus, it is important to keep agile as a chambers and identify survival strategies – with a focus on financial resilience. By Julie Clarke


The key is to continue to be responsive and flexible throughout any transition.

Like many in March, Chambers’ staff moved to home working full time. This has presented new challenges as well as opportunities for Chambers, and we have identified several strategies to help us deal with the changes taking place around us. This has been critical to ensure that access to justice and fundamental rights and principles are preserved during the pandemic, and well into the future.

First, a small COVID-19 leadership team was established. The team undertook a reforecast for a period of six months, and updated members on the actions taken in line with their analysis. New communication channels have been vital throughout this time, to ensure that quick decisions can be made, members and staff are fully consulted, and the ethos and spirit of Chambers is sustained. Virtual meetings for staff, the COVID-19 leadership team and practice areas are scheduled every week.

One major focus has been developing financial resilience to maximise income for members and chambers, and reduce costs. This article shares our experience, the strategies we employed, and further steps available to chambers.

Members’ rent contributions

Each chambers will have different options. We have reduced and deferred members’ rent contributions for May and June.

Billing and payment receipts

The need to ensure that bills are up to date and turned around fast is more crucial than ever. For CPS work, chambers have the following options to increase income:

  • CPS fees: 
    • Submit for payment all cases that have concluded.
    • Liaise with relevant CPS fee department for all fees to be paid where a case has been listed for trial but not effective, or basic fee has taken place but sentence is delayed due to COVID-19.
    • We are not doing this at the moment, but the next stage could be to apply for payments on cases where a basic fee has not yet been triggered.

Here are some steps to ensure maximum receipts from legally aided work, an area to which 1MCB Chambers remains very much committed:

  • AGFS fees:
    • Check through unbilled reports and ensure, where possible, that all concluded cases are billed and assessed by the Legal Aid Agency.
    • Submit claims in cases where defendants stand convicted but sentence is delayed due to COVID-19.
    • The next stage would also be to apply for payment in cases where the basic fee has not yet been triggered.

     

  • CCMS civil cases:
    • Solicitors have been particularly responsive on questions around legal aid details and CCMS tasks.
    • Manually check every case on CCMS to see if a payment on account is due and, if the system allows, apply for this. This has resulted in significant payments for members.

     

  • LAA hardship claim: The criteria has now widened, with hardship being presumed by the LAA without the barrister having to provide evidence as was previously the case.

 

Bank loan

There is also the option of the Bounce Back Loan or the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan scheme. Given that no interest is payable for 12 months, such schemes can be used as cover rather than using reserves. (See below.)

Costs

Rent and staff are the biggest fixed costs for all chambers. We are in ongoing discussions with the landlord in relation to rent.

We are also using the furlough scheme where appropriate. We operate as a team and so this was done with full discussion with everyone. Those staff furloughed consented, and it was done in a way so as to help those with childcare issues and to protect people’s livelihoods.

Throughout all this, wellbeing is a priority

The mental health and wellbeing of our members has remained a priority throughout. Zoom socials for members, staff, pupils and their families have been a great way to stay connected and to support each other. The tea parties, bingo, cook-along and cocktail evenings have been received positively by everyone. It is a connection for those who live alone, and a great way for those with children to be able to join in. You may have members who have particular skills (we are fortunate that our Deputy Head is running some online meditation sessions). I’ve made it to more of these Zoom socials than to our pre-corona real-life ones.

Our subscription to a Health Assured programme also provides confidential support to all members, pupils and staff. We have also produced and circulated a wellbeing resources pack: the Bar Council’s wellbeing pages are a good starting point for any chambers considering producing a similar resource.

Members’ engagement

We are concerned about informing and protecting disadvantaged parts of society that are at particular risk of being exposed to the harsh consequences of COVID-19 and the lockdown. Members have assisted the public, and solicitors, to understand the impact of COVID-19 across crime, employment, immigration, family, housing and interactions with the police. For example, we ran a webinar on the regulations and criminal sanctions governing freedom of movement and an international webinar on domestic abuse during lockdown; published blogs on how workers can use existing employment rights to protect their position during the lockdown, and on employers’ health and safety obligations; and guides to the widespread changes to procedures in the immigration tribunals.

Next steps

We recognise that the challenges we have faced, including courts closing and the introduction of remote working for barristers and staff, have in many cases impacted our lay clients even more profoundly. Although it is uncertain when any return to ‘normality’ will come, work will start to increase now, and it is key to continue to be responsive and flexible throughout any transition of what is now referred to as the ‘new normal’. In being agile we can best support our members, staff, professional clients and lay clients. 

*

The Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) provides loans between £2,000 and £50,000, capped at 25% of the business’s turnover. The funds are 100% guaranteed to the lender by the government, so the approval process can be simplified, with decisions reached and funds made available quickly. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) provides loans and overdrafts for eligible businesses (including sole traders) from £50,001 up to £5m. Barristers or chambers seeking finance who are unsure which scheme might suit them better should initially discuss this with their bank. Those who have had CBILS applications rejected are able to apply for a BBLS loan. Those who have taken CBILS loans or overdrafts of £50,000 or less can apply to transfer this liability to a BBLS loan. Self-employed barristers (as ‘sole traders’) and chambers (operating either as a Trade Protection Association or through an incorporated company) are eligible to be considered for a loan under this scheme.

This is an extract from the Bar Council, LPMA and IBC COVID-19 Working Group’s Coronavirus Guidance: Bounce-back loan scheme. See it in full at: bit.ly/2UIUc15

For the latest information regarding COVID-19 and the Bar, check the Bar Council’s Coronavirus advice and updates page: bit.ly/3fljbiU

For specific queries about the coronavirus crisis and how it impacts the Bar, you can email the Bar Council, LPMA and IBC Working Group at: C19WG@BarCouncil.org.uk

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Julie Clarke

Julie Clarke is Chambers Manager at 1MCB and works with the management committee to progress 1MCB’s service, compliance, financial processes, facilities and future growth.