As I write my first column as Chair of the Bar, we face real uncertainty about COVID again. A year ago, the first vaccines were administered to the public. Now we face further restrictions, as the government hopes to slow the spread, buy us time for vaccinations to work, and for winter to pass. By the time you read this, perhaps some of our collective anxiety will have diminished and we can feel a little more confident about the year ahead.

Derek Sweeting QC has been a remarkable leader in another difficult year. But he would be the first to say that the Bar Council is nothing without the tireless work and expert contributions from its members and staff. All of you have been steadfast in enduring what we have all been through and adapting to the new risks and uncertainties we have faced.

COVID aside (imagine that), there are short-term and long-term challenges that we need to meet and work to solve. Perhaps the greatest is the digital threat to the culture of the Bar. We no longer come into chambers and offices as we used to.

The collective social experience, so vital to training and learning throughout our careers, is being replaced and diminished by screens and email. If we don’t come together at court, or afterwards, how well are we learning from each other? Isolation means we are more likely to be stressed and make mistakes; we are less well placed to notice when colleagues may be in trouble.

Many parts of our court estate have suffered from neglect over the last decade or more. Roofs leak, windows are broken, heating and ventilation fails. This is bad for the morale of those who work in courts and tribunals. But it also suggests an indifference to the importance of the justice system in our society. This winter some trials have been adjourned and juries sent home due to broken court heating systems. Witnesses and complainants who have already suffered unacceptable delays are having their trials pushed back even further.

In the short term we need the buildings repaired so we can keep working. In the long term we need a serious review of the capacity of many parts of the system. At the forefront of this planning should be the question: how long is it acceptable to wait before a case – whether small claim, employment tribunal, criminal allegation, care proceedings – can be heard? But the problem goes far beyond buildings.

Perhaps the most damaging to the public interest is the reduction in the number of barristers willing to do criminal work. For a decade or more, those who practise crime have voted with their feet and sought other areas of work. The government must understand that unless people believe they have a viable future in this area, they will opt for other work that is more secure. If we lose more and more younger barristers, the ageing of the profession will accelerate and the long-term damage to the justice system will be acute.

We are expecting the Criminal Legal Aid Review to be published any day now. We anticipate a long and serious piece of work, examining the criminal justice system from end to end. When the government responds, it is inevitable that we will not get everything we want. No one ever does. In the coming months we will do everything we can to persuade the government to invest in the profession to create a sustainable future for criminal work.

It is also critical that we address the lack of diversity and opportunity within our profession. We simply cannot accept the status quo. The Race at the Bar report by the Bar Council’s Race Working Group ends the debate about the existence of injustice within our profession at every stage: pupillage, career progression, earnings, and retention. It is time to stop talking about the problem and implement solutions. Please read the whole report and act.

There are many other challenges ahead including proposals to amend the Human Rights Act, possible changes to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, and the country slowly adjusting to the political and legal consequences of leaving the European Union.

Closer to home, there is much to discuss with our regulators. If your New Year’s resolution(s) have begun to fade and you are looking to fill a ‘resolution gap’, then take a look at the Bar Council’s Bar Sustainability Network and consider how your chambers or employer could ‘Measure, Target and Reduce’ its carbon footprint. Building size, work and commuting patterns, insulation, and recycling are all things we must consider if we are to set ambitious targets and reach Net Zero by 2030.

I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible throughout 2022 and wish you all the best for the coming year.