Despite HMCTS planning to have all court buildings in England and Wales reopened with appropriate social distancing measures by the end of July 2020 and members of the Bar expressing their desire to get back to work, a recent LPMA and IBC survey (the “Survey”) found that chambers have seen very little increase in the number of members returning to the office. Senior staff members within chambers are, however, conscious that there is soon likely to be an increase in attendance and are therefore beginning to plan for the staged return of up to 50% of their staff, on a rota system, between now and the end of September.

In May 2020, the Bar Council, LPMA and IBC Covid-19 Working Group released guidance on managing the return to chambers, only one element of which has recently been updated following updates to the Government’s guidance on shielding and protecting people who are clinically vulnerable. The responses received through the Survey helpfully expand upon the Working Group’s suggested considerations by identifying the main factors that are influencing the return to chambers decision-making process. These factors include updates to government guidance, the changing needs of both barristers and their clients, and the considerations required in respect of their employees’ health and wellbeing. To further assist chambers with the process, ensure that they comply with their legal duties and offer as safe a working environment as is reasonably practicable, the Working Group has now produced a template Risk Assessment.

Despite some chambers initially being caught off-guard by the technological requirements of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced thousands of business to let their staff work remotely and HMCTS to prioritise its telephone and video capabilities, the responses to the survey suggest that many are unlikely to return to a more traditional working environment.

With 84% of chambers stating that they have seen their income reduce by over 40% over the past few months, it comes as no surprise that 10% of respondents to the Survey said that their chambers had given partial notice on its lease, with a further 21% indicating that they are considering taking similar action in a bid to relieve financial pressure. A reduction in the space available to chambers’ members and staff heralds the beginnings of change, with those same sets presumably planning to maximise on the reductions to their square footage and introduce “work smart” policies which offer greater opportunity for flexible working.

It’s clear that many chambers are not planning to return to work now and that, having adapted to paperless working and a virtual working environment, some sets may never return to their previous model. What this will look like in reality remains to be seen but, for a multitude of reasons, it is a change that is arguably overdue and one that the Bar Council plans to support wholeheartedly.

Carolyn Entwistle, Head of Services and Chair of the Covid-19 Working Group