Guest contributor Muhammad Daniyal writes about the impact of the pandemic on the Bar.
It is undoubtedly true that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the whole world tremendously, and it continues to do so, not least in the UK despite the current success of the vaccine rollout. However, with the prospect of more variants and vaccine-resistant strains appearing the future remains uncertain.
I say this with great dejection, as someone who wants to become a barrister in the near future, that the Bar of England and Wales has also been hit hard by the pandemic. Some barrister chambers have closed and more still may, which will all result in a sudden drop in the number of pupillages (apprenticeships for new barristers), and tenancies for barristers.
Some popular and old barrister chambers have been forced to close – such as Charter Chambers, who specialized in crime and regulation, which closed on 30th October last year – due to a combination of interrupted court work and an inability to generate income to pay future costs.
Neil Hawes QC, Head of the closed Charter Chambers said: “It was this assessment – alongside a review of chambers’ own needs for its future – that led Charter to the unanimous conclusion that to continue as we were would inevitably lead us to depleting our financial reserves and result in the set entering into significant borrowing.” (Source: The Law Gazette) He added: “Members were not prepared to engage in such a business risk.” The Chambers had 50 members, including 6 Queen Counsels’ (QC)
A survey in 2020 undertaken by the Bar Council suggests that 55% of barrister chambers would be unable to survive six months of closures, and 81% would not survive the year. The criminal bar has been hardest hit, with 90% of chambers predicting they would fold after 12 months without more financial support.
The Bar Council has warned that the pandemic could cause a 'persisting' shortage of barristers, after the number of pupillages registered last year dropped by 35%. With some barrister chambers closing and others unable to fund pupillages, the number of pupillages registered may drop even more this year.
In addition, the Bar Council revealed that almost 30% of publicly funded barristers are unsure whether they will renew their practising certificate next year and fee income has fallen by an average of almost 60% across the board, including privately funded work. (Source: The Law Gazette)
These above-mentioned figures are indeed shocking. Undoubtedly, many Aspiring Barristers, Law students in their final years, barristers, and Chambers Clerks whose chambers have closed due to the impact of COVID-19 are facing immense pressures and their mental health has undoubtedly suffered.
Prior to the pandemic, there was already high levels of competition. Roughly 1/4 of BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course) Students would secure a pupillage in chambers in England & Wales. If chambers continue to close, the number of pupillages available will shrink and that would result in more competition for places for pupillages. According to the Bar Standards Board, 1,753 students enrolled for the BPTC Course in the 2018/19 academic year, and there were roughly about 400 pupillages available for them. We can immediately begin to see the tension in this scenario.
In addition, the Bar Standards Board have published a report on the impact that COVID-19 is on pupillages. The report found that while chambers and other organizations have shown an admirable commitment to sustaining pupillages in unprecedented times, there is likely to be some pressure on the number available from 2020 to 2022.
The impacts of these shortages are likely to be manifold. Will the number of international and home students for the BPTC or the law degree decrease? Will the route to becoming a barrister become more unbelievably complicated than before?
Who knows what the future holds for the Bar.