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30% of pupillage places in limbo, COVID-19 survey finds

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Barrister hopefuls face anxious wait

Nearly a third of chambers are considering scrapping their pupillage recruitment plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey undertaken by the Bar Council has found.

Thirty percent of chambers who responded to the survey said they may not take on pupils as planned for the next two years, while a further 24% admitted they were currently unsure and continue to review their position. A total of 145 sets responded to the survey.

The situation appears worse at the criminal bar, with 36% of chambers reconsidering their recruitment plans and a further 22% adopting a wait-and-see approach.

The research will be particularly disappointing for would-be barristers who have spent the past few months toiling away over lengthy Gateway applications, only to be told that the pupillage spot they were chasing may no longer exist.

Even more worryingly, a whopping 81% of all chambers said they will not survive the next 12 months without government-backed financial aid if the pandemic persists. Fifty-five percent said they cannot survive the next six months. At the criminal bar, 90% of chambers predicted they will fold within a year without financial support.

The top concerns cited by chambers were interruption to court work, inability to generate income to pay future costs and cash flow (or lack thereof) to pay current costs.

In light of the findings, the Bar Council urged the government to extend self-employed relief to barristers without 12 months of receipts and permit them to rely on 2019/2020 tax returns or letters from chambers to prove their status and earnings. It also said childcare costs to be deductible as expenses of self-employment for the purposes.

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Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said: “We continue to urge the Ministry of Justice and government to give immediate support to the bar, especially those in the early stages of their practice and those doing publicly funded work. Whilst the measures introduced last week by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to help the self-employed were welcome, the self-employed bar and chambers have needs that have not been addressed.”

She continued:

“Having canvassed the bar through our survey, we have identified consistent concerns that chambers are facing, which we have raised as a matter of urgency with the government. We continue to press for action on these issues.”

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