There are two themes which have been consistently present over the past year and during my time as Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee: – technology and Brexit.
Both of these topics will be spoken about today, and the breakout sessions on these issues highlight the importance of these themes.
Both topics bring with them a great deal of uncertainty – a lack of clarity as to the way forward, how they will affect the Bar, and particularly how they will affect and change the future of young barristers.
Today’s cohort of young barristers is in a particularly vulnerable position.
They are financially vulnerable – as a consequence of tuition fees and increases in the BPTC fees we now know that young barristers can have anywhere from £30,000-£70,000 debt when then start out in the profession.
Many are making repayments over their first 5 years of practice if not substantially longer.
Young criminal and family barristers are receiving the lowest of sums for carrying out important work, and many are struggling to maintain a living.
Parts of the media have reports almost daily where lawyers are criticised for the work they do and characterised as a scourge on society.
Young barristers live in deeply uncertain and difficult times. I would argue more so than any generation of barristers in the previous 52 years. And it is difficult against that background not to feel somewhat lost and somewhat depressed.
The Wellbeing at the Bar report published last year highlights the levels of stress and anxiety being felt by all barristers.
Nearly 2,500 barristers responded to the survey that formed the research behind the report.
The survey found that one in three barristers find it difficult to control or stop worrying. One in six barristers said that they felt low in spirits most of the time.
I myself have suffered with anxiety and depression. I have lost a close friend who took her own life, in part under the strain that this job and circumstances can place on people.
And the increase in remote working has started to remove the idea that chambers are where others will be working and where support can be found if needed.
Young barristers are under increased pressure and this is why I welcome the Wellbeing at the Bar initiative, which is being launched today. Through this work we can dispel the stigma that prevents so many people from asking for help. And we can help others to understand what they can do to assist those in difficulty.
For the young bar in particular there is also the Young Bar Hub and Toolkit, which have become an invaluable resource for young barristers – to find advice and guidance, and to understand that they are not alone in this profession.
One thing I have realised and learnt over 7 years of practice is that many people, many young barristers, do their work while dealing with great adversity. Whether that is physical disability or illness, mental un-wellness, discrimination or harassment, or financial pressure.
The one thing that the Bar excels at is standing firm in the face of difficulty. The concept of fearlessly defending others’ interests and standing up for our client is at the heart of all that we do. And we are capable of taking the wrath of judges, governments, solicitors and (on occasion) clients.
All the barristers who I know manage their difficulties and never once allow it to negatively impact on their work for their clients or their duty to the court. They stand strong.
In her sermon at the Annual Judges’ Service at Westminster Abbey, to mark the Opening of the Legal Year, Reverend Jane Sinclair, Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret’s Church, described lawyers and judges, and the work of lawyers and judges, as a gift to society. A gift to society that helps us to maintain our freedoms.
It is for these very reasons that I think we have to embrace change and see the opportunities ahead – even if they appear sometimes to be elusive.
We are a strong profession. We are becoming a more diverse profession. And we are a profession that puts our clients first – no matter what.
I am proud that I am part of a profession, and a cohort of young barristers, that still hold those values true. The value of representation. The importance of assisting and guiding our clients. And the duty that we hold to the court that enables justice to be done in every case in which we appear.
Barristers are not a scourge on society. We are strong advocates that ensure people’s stories are heard and their rights are protected.
And so while Brexit is being debate and discussed, I truly hope and invite and encourage the Government and individuals to look to barristers to assist them. To guide them and help them in framing our new relationship with Europe.
While our Courts are embracing digitisation I call on Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service and the Senior Judges to listen to and take the advice of those of us at the coal face, who assist and help individuals through the system every day.
And for all those present to remember that what we do matters.
Representation and advocacy matters.
Today there are a variety of sessions that are specifically aimed at Young Barristers, and are identified as such in the programme. All are welcome to attend these sessions, but I would encourage young barristers in particular to take this opportunity to learn something new and to engage with others.
After lunch our keynote speaker Caroline Wilson will be speaking to the young bar, and we will have an Open Forum session where you can ask any question of your leadership and we will answer. This is the time for your voice. No question is a silly question – we are here to listen and speak with you.
I sincerely hope you will enjoy the Conference and look forward to meeting as many of you as possible over the course of the day.
This address was delivered by Louisa Nye (Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee of the Bar Council of England and Wales) to the delegates at the Young Bar and Annual Bar Conference 2016.