We are already halfway through the year and ‘roadmap’ seems to be the word of the moment. As a nation, we have (at the time of writing) continued to cautiously unlock the measures taken to combat COVID. Social engagements have started to return, thankfully in tandem with better weather. At the Bar we are looking forward with greater optimism as we continue to use new – and we hope improved – ways of working, while maintaining those skills and practices that have stood the test of time and the pandemic.

There are real positives to returning to work in person, particularly for pupils and those starting out at the Bar, who learn best from real-life connections, networking and experience. There is emerging evidence about qualitative differences between in-person and remote hearings and perhaps an instinctive feeling that there are occasions when we can only do the best for those we represent if we, and they, are present. There can be little doubt that the last year has shown that the Bar and the justice system can keep going remotely; there are lessons that we were forced to learn under pressure, which will have major implications for the future of justice and the way in which the profession operates. But there continue to be question marks around the adequacy and suitability of technology and the types of hearing which lend themselves to remote or hybrid working. Rigorous and independent evaluation is called for. We welcomed the third rapid consultation in the family justice system by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory with the aim of providing an evidence base for future ways of working.

My discussions with Bar leaders suggest that at the same time as such assessments are being carried out, guidance, not rules, would be appreciated. The Bar Council supports remote hearings becoming the starting point for short or uncontroversial procedural business, particularly for the related benefits of tackling backlogs across many jurisdictions. But where a hearing will finally dispose of a case, we consider that, at least at present, the starting position should be an in-person hearing. Remote hearings should of course be available as an option in all cases and certainly where the parties agree, or the court considers, that proceeding in that way would be appropriate and in the interests of justice. When it comes to criminal justice, the Bar Council remains opposed to the use of remote juries and has set out its unified position with the Law Society in its joint briefing to MPs on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Emphasising the need to proceed cautiously when making significant change does not, however, amount to opposition to modernising our justice system or, for example, re-examining assumptions about whether ‘physical’ hearings (whether remote or in-person) are always required. Radical changes, such as the introduction of ‘asynchronous hearings’, need to be considered if we are to offer streamlined and cost-effective access to justice.

It seems likely that many chambers are not planning to return to their previous business model. Despite an appetite to get back in a room with people, many barristers have adapted to their practice going largely online. So, the challenging question now is: where does our own roadmap lead?

From a chambers or organisational perspective, the Roadmap for returning to chambers, produced by the Bar Council’s COVID-19 Working Group, is, we hope, a helpful one-stop shop. It includes a template risk assessment and the crucial message that ‘chambers will likely want to take a more empathetic approach and should therefore be open to discussing the ways in which they might be able to address the concerns of their employees’. This means that flexible working policies should be current, transparent and accessible. The closer focus on modernising the Bar’s working patterns is perhaps one major positive to come out of the last year: taking account of those with caring responsibilities or other flexible working needs is rightly recognised as a priority.

Paperless working and the shift to a largely virtual workplace has also had positive effects for environmental sustainability. Reaching net zero requires action from every individual and organisation, and the time is ripe for those that haven’t already taken the step, to consider how they can act. The Bar Council’s Bar Sustainability Network can help with this. It provides advice, practical guidance, resources, a carbon calculator, membership of the Bar Renewables Pledge and more.

The reality is that while the Bar might not return to the pattern of working that was commonplace pre-pandemic – nor is it likely that the profession will become overwhelmingly remote – it is most likely we will see a new way of working emerge which is a hybrid of both. This will mean partially working remotely and partially in person in both chambers and court – with, importantly, more freedom to choose.

For those that want to be part of building this vision, we will be holding a session at this year’s Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference on ‘The Hybrid Workweek and its future in chambers’. All of these issues will be up for discussion, including the impact on costs, workflow and people when it comes to hybrid working.

There is much we can, and should, do to ensure everyone with talent can build a sustainable, tailored and successful career, regardless of circumstances. Welcome to the hybrid Bar.