The world faces a time of great anxiety with the pandemic of coronavirus/Covid-19. None of us knows how the next few months will develop. We do not know what it means for the health and wellbeing of us or our loved ones.
The Government will introduce a number of measures aimed to combat the spread and impact of the disease. We already know that this will involve significant disruption to our daily lives and the economy. There will be significant periods of time when citizens will be required not to work or will not be able to work due to their health or the health of others.
For the legal profession we will face many challenges, as will many others. For the self-employed Criminal Bar there will be many problems that we share with every other self-employed worker and some that are particular to us.
The majority of the income for a Criminal Barrister comes from trial work. We only get paid for our work at the very end of the case. Trials will be disrupted by problems encountered with our health, the health of jurors, the health of the Judge, the health of witnesses and the health of defendants. That is an awful lot of factors that can go wrong when up to 60% of us will have the same illness within the next couple of months.
Of course they are not the only problems. As of this week it isn’t just a question of not being well enough to attend court. We will have to self isolate in circumstances where we would otherwise be well enough to attend. And in the near future the same may apply if it is a member of your household that has identifiable symptoms.
That’s a lot of reasons why trials may not take place or conclude. And that is before we get to how the MoJ or the HMCTS may decide to respond to the developing situation.
As with many, this is going to provide financial difficulties for the Bar.
We can only hope that the Government will provide assistance across the board. We have to hope that concrete and universal proposals will be made for deferring VAT or tax payments. The choice should not be between paying staff or paying the Government. We should not be paying for HS2 when we cannot pay for our mortgages. It should not be on the basis of HMRC being “understanding”. We cannot be in a position where we have to grind through the bureaucracy of the tax authorities and end up no better off. And, of course, HMRC will be suffering their own staffing issues. We need to know that the money is available to us.
The CBA and the Bar Council need to be talking to the authorities immediately. The rules on payment need temporarily changing. We should be able to bill and be paid for hearings before the conclusion of the case. There should be no necessity for proving hardship. If we have been to court and made an appearance we need to be able to claim that fee. It could be the difference between someone keeping their head above water that month.
We also need to be inventive and altruistic. There must be a way that we, as a profession, can assist our colleagues. Where someone junior has to return a three day trial on the Wednesday because they self-isolated on the Monday, that may be their significant income for that month. Someone will pick up the return and earn the money instead.
Is it possible for us to do something to assist in those circumstances? Would it be possible to compile a register of people prepared to take on the case in those circumstances but either give the fee to the original advocate or share the fee? Would it be possible for Silks to take on those cases and the junior member of the Bar still receive the fee?
This must be possible. I know that April was going to be a month of mainly preparation for myself. I could give up a week of that, to work for free and make sure the junior member of the Bar does not miss out. Or, in the alternative, a dedicated hardship fund to which we contribute for the provision of financial aid to those that are struggling?
This is an unprecedented situation. We need some urgent and imaginative solutions to ease the burden we all face. Those that lead, from the Government to the DPP to the LAA to the senior judiciary to the Bar Council, need to lead. And need to help. It isn’t just the illness which can damage. It is the worry and the uncertainty. We need answers before the questions become problems.