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Research: Fifth of barristers want to quit profession as debt and stress levels soar

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Barristers at ‘breaking point’ and in urgent need of support, Bar Council chief warns

Around a fifth of barristers want to quit the profession as they face extreme financial and psychological woes, new research from the Bar Council has found.

The representative body for barristers in England and Wales published the findings of its most recent survey of the bar. The findings show some signs of recovery in workload, but highlight there is an “immediate risk” of exodus from the profession as barristers remain “stressed, weary and worried”. Eighteen percent of the 1,344 self-employed barristers surveyed said they actively want to leave the profession, the study found.

In the absence of government financial support, many have taken on significant personal debt simply to stay afloat in the last nine months. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of self-employed barrister respondents have taken on personal debt or used savings, with 17% incurring debts above £20,000. This figure is even higher for the criminal bar where 27% have taken on debt over £20,000.

Around a quarter of respondents have taken on additional paid work because their earnings decreased; 24% said that they needed to bolster their finances to make ends meet.

This situation poses a serious threat to the diversity of the bar. Barristers from ethnic minority or mixed backgrounds are disproportionately affected: around one half (48%) are currently experiencing financial hardship and 72% have at some point during the pandemic. One third (32%) of white respondents said they are currently experiencing financial hardship and 59% have at some point.

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Managing wellbeing is an increasing concern, with a quarter (25%) of respondents feeling that this is “very difficult” at present, while just over half (51%) feel more stressed than usual.

The survey highlighted further issues, including that barristers are concerned about students finding it harder to secure pupillage, particularly at the criminal bar, and are not getting the training and support nor advocacy exposure they need.

Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, said:

“The findings of this survey send a stark message: that many barristers have reached breaking point. Despite tentative signs of recovery, a lack of government support means that many barristers remain deeply concerned about their own financial prospects and the future of their profession.”

He continued: “For years, the justice system has been underfunded, but coronavirus has exposed how fragile it is in many areas which directly affect ordinary members of the public. It is imperative that barristers are urgently given the support they need to ensure that justice remains accessible to all.”

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