Even in my few short years at the bar I have noticed a change in the robing rooms. What used to be good-humoured, self-deprecating jokes about workloads and pay cheques have become less funny. The comments are no longer made simply to bemoan the loss of the “fat cat” years, but increasingly as genuine and heartfelt complaint as to the pressures imposed by caseloads and finances. There has been a notable shift in recent years, not just in the type of work we are doing, but in the effect it is having on us.
The changes in working practices and pressures are evident. Barristers in the Crown Court are frequently and increasingly replaced by HCAs, meaning “bread and butter” work is no longer available to the junior bar in the quantities it once was. When they are instructed, barristers are expected to do more work for less reward, as fees are cut again and again and inflation continues regardless. Pressure is increased by the workload and time constraints imposed by judicial orders. And having been instructed in a case, prepared it, attended all the hearings and complied with all the orders, an uncooperative listing officer can mean that the time spent doing so is financially almost entirely unrewarded, and someone else will soon be feeling the pressure of preparing the case in an unreasonably short period of time.
There is a widespread feeling on circuit that the work/life balance is wrong, and that family life is suffering as a result. However, there is little known or suggested as to what the solution to that is. That may come from a feeling of helplessness that there is little that can be done to reverse or improve the external influences causing the increase in pressure. It may be a result of the age-old trait within the profession that to accept that experiencing pressure is to admit failure and an inability to do the job. It may simply be that we do not have the support systems provided by employers and colleagues who can notice when employees are struggling.
The Wellbeing at the Bar initiative aims to change that, by increasing awareness and understanding of the emotional and psychological challenges barristers face; by reducing the stigma that is too often associated with stress and anxiety, particularly in our profession; and by providing practical support through prevention and treatment options. The website provides an outlet and support system, which it is hoped will provide a welcome alternative to robing room complaints or worse, silent suffering.
Helen Randall is a sixth year tenant at Iscoed Chambers in Swansea. She has a common law practice predominantly specialising in Criminal and Employment law.