Chairman's Update - 14 May 2015

14 May 2015

Wellbeing, pro bono and representing the Bar's interests

In 2013, the Bar Council provided, for the first time, an opportunity for all barristers to pay a £30 additional and voluntary donation at the same time as they were paying their practising certificate fee to the Bar Council.  The payment was to help the Bar Pro Bono Unit to maintain and expand the work it is doing to assist those who, without its help, would be left without any form of advice or representation.

As I have said before, this is really important work, particularly in the light of the pernicious effects of LASPO; the need for pro bono advice and representation has never been greater. 

Of course, with the reductions in scope and reach of legal aid, the Bar Pro Bono Unit cannot even begin to replace the provision of adequate and fairly distributed access to justice.  I say that because some people have the idea that it is there to seek in some way to fill the gap created by reductions in legal aid and that by supporting the Bar Pro Bono Unit, we are in some way bailing the Government out of a serious problem they have created as a result of misguided policy.  

The Bar Pro Bono Unit exists to help, in a compassionate and caring way, some of the least advantaged members of our society.  As professionals who care passionately about access to justice, fairness and equity, surely supporting them is the least we can do.  

It is my very great pleasure to thank the Bar profusely for its support in making the £30 payments, this year on an unprecedented scale.  In 2014/15, 4,348 barristers paid the Bar Pro Bono voluntary payment.  This contributed magnificently to the ability of the Unit to carry out its core functions.  

However, in 2015/16, this generosity was greatly increased.  No fewer than 7,722 have made the voluntary payment, with the result that the Bar Pro Bono Unit has benefited in the sum of £231,600.  This represents an increase of 77% on last year's donations.  

This is a truly magnificent response in times of great economic difficulty, when the Bar is being squeezed for money in all directions.  In addition to demonstrating the great financial generosity of the Bar, it tells us so much more about our profession.  It demonstrates a generosity of spirit.  It is the most tangible proof possible that we have a commitment to helping those least able in our society to articulate their cases to obtain the best advice and representation.  It is an unanswerable riposte to those who hold the view that barristers are only out to get what they can financially from the system within which they work.  It shows our overarching desire that the rule of law should be adhered to in a country which was, after all, the cradle of that concept.  

It is an irony that, whereas barristers have been astonishingly generous in relation to helping others, they have been less generous helping themselves.  As part of a continuing trend, the number of those paying the other optional fee to the Bar Council, namely the Bar Representation Fee (BRF), has declined.  This will lead, unless there is an increase in the proportion of the Bar prepared to pay the BRF, to really significant inroads into the representational activities of the Bar Council.  As I stressed in my article for Counsel in March, this income pays for the vast majority of our representational work.  It pays for our submissions to Government, our media work, lobbying and international development initiatives, to name just a few of the activities covered.  I said it in March and I say it again: these are the core functions and those activities that most barristers think the Bar Council is all about.  

I urge those of you who have declined to pay the BRF to think again.  It is a truly ironic situation that the Bar is prepared to help those with no voice in society at precisely the same time as it is failing to help make its own voice heard in the corridors of power.  With a new Government in place, that task is crucial.  It is only by making representations to Government that we can even begin to hope to bring home the devastating effects of LASPO or seek to persuade those in Westminster that proper remuneration for the Bar is vital to the continuing provision of advice and representation of the highest quality.  And, by a final irony, in making such representations, we are doing so on behalf the very same people who are now so much in need of pro bono advice.  

Wellbeing at the Bar 

In this context, it is very apposite that I should raise the Wellbeing at the Bar Survey, whose results were announced recently and which was paid for by income derived from the BRF.  That this is a ground-breaking piece of work, which was developed to look in greater detail at the unique aspects of a barristers' working environment and how this impacts on psychological health and wellbeing. 

The aim of the programme, chaired by Rachel Spearing, is to encourage discussion on the topic and shift attitudes towards wellbeing, which is a subject rarely spoken about within the legal profession. The programme also aims to:  

  • Normalise investment in wellbeing, where it is needed, as being central to sustaining performance as a barrister;
  • Ensure individuals know that support is available and feel comfortable accessing it;
  • Rethink the Bar's attitude and approach towards health and wellbeing; and
  • Build understanding, acceptance and enthusiasm for the use of wellbeing toolkits and support resources among those with a management role. 

An overwhelming response saw nearly 2,500 members complete the survey, implying the importance of wellbeing at the Bar.  

Just as sportsmen and women need a degree of nerves or stress to achieve the best possible performance, it must be kept within clearly recognisable limits if it is not to become destructive.

The results of the survey showed that substantial numbers of members of the Bar have difficulty in controlling and preventing worry.  They are intensely self-critical and have real difficulty sleeping properly.  Nearly two thirds think that showing signs of stress at work indicates weakness and the same proportion are unable to integrate work and other responsibilities satisfactorily. 

For too long, stress, mental health and wellbeing have been taboo subjects of discussion at the Bar and the wider legal sector. The fact there was such a high survey response rate of 2,500 provides us for the first time with an evidence base upon which to act.  It reveals that support and guidance for those working closely with the Bar - Inns, clerks, chambers chief executives and others - is needed to identify and support members of the profession who need help. 

The next step for the Bar Council and its partners is to put in place a number of initiatives aimed at tackling this issue head on and enabling barristers and those who work with them to maintain a balanced working life. The survey showed that those barristers who had experienced some level of mentoring were more resilient to the stress levels encountered in the profession. We will be implementing our Bar Mentoring Service beyond its current focus on silk and judicial appointment to ensure suitable mentoring (social support) is available to barristers whatever their life stage or need in response to that finding. We are also establishing a working group with representatives from the Inns, Circuits and Specialist Bar Associations, to identify existing good practice across the Bar and to design and deliver a long-term education programme to bring about culture change in relation to wellbeing at the Bar. 

This is a Bar-wide challenge and, as well as the self-employed Bar, we are also looking at how the junior end of the profession as well as the employed Bar can be supported to help manage the pressures they face in their careers at the Bar.


Alistair MacDonald QC
Chairman of the Bar