I cannot believe that Easter is over and another week of lockdown has gone by in our ‘new normal’. Last week was busy so I wanted to update you on what the Bar Council has been doing to support the Bar through this crisis:
- Survey summary:Thank you all for responding to the survey. It is extremely helpful to have direct, compelling, if shocking evidence, of how members of our profession view their future. You provided that.The summary results are here.
- Government ministers:In the last week I have met the Lord Chancellor twice to impress on him the urgency of the situation for the Bar. I also wrote to him asking for his support by advancing our recommendations directly with the Chancellor of the Exchequer:
- raise the threshold of self-employed relief;
- allow greater flexibility in the evidence to demonstrate that a barrister is eligible for the self-employed scheme;
- include the Bar in the exemption from business rates;
- extend the scheme to support those criminal legal aid barristers who do not fall within the scheme to give them a rescue package, and
- support chambers doing criminal legal aid work.
We are grateful to have the strong support of many others.
- Civil and family:We know many cases are being adjourned for no apparently good reason and have been repeatedly asking HMCTS for the figures on those civil and family cases going ahead (whether remotely or in person) and those being adjourned. Our own evidence from barristers, via the Circuit Leaders and SBAs, suggests many hearings are being adjourned rather than taking place remotely, which should be the default position. This is a genuine concern for the delivery of justice and for the sustainability of the profession.Please keep providing us with your own experiences – we feed each one to HMCTS and the senior judiciary so that they are immediately informed. Again, with your help, we are providing evidence of what the real picture of justice is on a day-to-day basis. Once we can, we will give you the ‘official’ figures.
- Technology and remote working:HMCTS is rolling out the Cloud Video Platform (CVP) for use in civil, criminal and family courts, as well as Skype for Business and Teams. Please see theguide to telephone and video hearings during coronavirus outbreak from HMCTS. Richard Wright QC, Leader of the NE Circuit, has been closely involved in testing CVP and reported back really good experiences with it.
- MoJ/LAA fees:I am speaking to the MoJ daily, both about how the government financial package is not helping the Bar and about how the LAA regulations could be changed to ensure very early payment to those doing criminal work. I am delighted to say that in the second call with the Lord Chancellor, he agreed to change the existing LAA regulations for hardship payments:
- the coronavirus situation is accepted as evidence of hardship, without more;
- if you are owed £450 or more by the LAA you can apply for it in advance of any normal trigger point, and
- you can invoice a month, rather than 6 months, after you are owed £450 or more by the LAA. The Government expects that the statutory instrument will be passed at the end of the week and payments can start from early May.
- Jury trials:As the Bar Council’s representative, with the Law Society and CBA, I have joined a working party set up by the judiciary to consider re-starting jury trials as soon as it is safe to do so – it is operational in ambit, rather than political or policy-driven. It reports to the Lord Chief Justice through its Chair, Edis J. This is good news because we are able to feed in practical experience from the Bar – both prosecuting and defending. The Bar Council has set up its own cross-jurisdictional, lively group to consider ways to get back to work more fully. We have already had several productive meetings. Any ideas,please do get in touch.
- CPS:I have met with the DPP who continues to be positively supportive of the role the Bar plays in doing their work. I expect further practical working arrangements to be published this week.
- Essential workers eligible for testing:Last week the government announced testing for all essential workers with symptoms of Covid-19. On Friday, we were able to get confirmation that barristers working in the courts and tribunals are included in essential workers and the new testing applies to us. We are aiming to get the Bar back in court as quickly and safely as possible.
- Part-time judicial positions:The Bar Council and the Law Society have been pressing the government to treat as employees those practitioners who are part-time judges and who, in normal times, arrange their practices to accommodate HMCTS’ sitting requirements – not such an odd thing as all are paid under PAYE. Regrettably, the government is not currently recognising the commitment of many of our members upon whom they have relied. We will carry on pressing them.
- Hardship funds: I am pleased that the directors of the QCA have agreed to donate £100,000 each to the Barristers’ Benevolent Association and the Solicitors’ Benevolent Association to support struggling practitioners in immediate need. The arrangements are being finalised.
- Guidance:The Bar Council strives to produce accurate and updated guidance for the Bar on issues related to the Covid-19 outbreak. Please see recently published guidance onvideo conferencing software and e-bundles, as well as anti-money laundering.
- Finally, I have been taking opportunities wherever possible to speak to the press and raise awareness about our situation and that of justice in this crisis. Don’t forget that our Covid-19 working group is also still very active and here to help with anything you would like to raise. You can emailC19WG@BarCouncil.org.uk.