The Bar Council, which represents all barristers in England and Wales, has today published findings from its most recent survey of the Bar. The findings show some signs of recovery in workload, but highlight the extreme financial and psychological hardship still facing many barristers.

Key findings

  • Hours and fee income, while higher than last summer, remain considerably lower than before the pandemic. The biggest problem is still interruption to court work (cited by 40%).
  • Barristers are being forced to take on large amounts of debt simply to stay afloat. Two thirds of self-employed barrister respondents have been forced to take on personal debt or use savings (61%), and a significant proportion of these have incurred debts above £20,000 (17%). This figure is even higher for the criminal Bar (where 27% have taken on debt over £20,000).
  • This situation poses a serious threat to the diversity of the Bar. Barristers from ethnic minority or mixed backgrounds are disproportionately affected: half (48%) are currently experiencing financial hardship and 72% have at some point during the pandemic.
  • Around a quarter of respondents are having to take on additional paid work. 24% said that they needed to bolster their finances to make ends meet.
  • Personal wellbeing is increasingly becoming a struggle. A quarter of respondents are finding things “very difficult”, and over half feel more stressed than usual.
  • A vast majority of respondents feel unsafe in court. 84% had safety concerns around the cleanliness and ventilation provided in courts, and said that Covid-19 safety measures were not consistently enforced.
  • There is an immediate risk of exodus from the profession. Around a fifth (18%) of self-employed barristers actively want to leave the profession.

Chair of the Bar Council, Derek Sweeting QC said:

“The findings of this survey send a stark message: that many barristers have reached breaking point.

Despite tentative signs of recovery, a lack of Government support means that many barristers remain deeply concerned about their own financial prospects and the future of their profession. The survey uncovers the reality of working in the courts and highlights safety concerns about poor ventilation and cleanliness.

The state of the publicly funded Bar is particularly worrying, with barristers forced to take on significant amounts of debt to prop up an underfunded justice system and working to the point of exhaustion to keep afloat. Barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately suffering financially, which threatens to drive talent away and undo progress on diversity at the Bar.

For years, the justice system has been underfunded, but coronavirus has exposed how fragile it is in many areas which directly affect ordinary members of the public. It is imperative that barristers are urgently given the support they need to ensure that justice remains accessible to all.”

Read the summary here