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Leaving Lockdown: Wellbeing at the Bar23.04.20

Leaving Lockdown: Wellbeing at the Bar

Finding the balance between efficiency and wellbeing.

by Philippa Pudney, 23 April 2020

As we enter our sixth week of government-enforced restrictions on movement, the optimists among us may be thinking about what life will be like upon release. But this perhaps remains the biggest uncertainty amidst the Covid-19 chaos. Will all go back to normal? Or rather, should all go back to normal? Despite the difficulties faced by all at the Bar during this time, there has been an undoubted increase in efficiency in the way hearings have been conducted. The question now posed is how can we balance this new-found efficiency whilst still ensuring wellbeing at the Bar?

I will not touch upon the issues encountered with access to justice in an attempt not to regurgitate what has been said by Dr Barbara Green in an article posted last week. The article gives a detailed and comprehensive view on the need for justice to be done and ‘be seen to be done’ by all within proceedings.

Before we entered this strange phase of what has now become a pyjama-wearing normality, legal professionals often travelled hundreds of miles per week to attend Court. In my experience this regularly tallied up to more hours spent in my car, listening to the same outdated playlist than hours spent in Court with clients, or before a Judge. Whilst at the time, I resented the weekly petrol costs attached to the old-normal, the opportunities to visit new cities, appear before Judges of differing expertise and have interesting conversations (face-to-face!) with opposing counsel were in abundance. There were undoubted perks to the way we used to do it.

Since the closure of Family Court buildings on 23 March 2020, we are tasked with: working from make-shift offices within our homes; attempting to reach sensible agreements between parties via email, and locking all other household members in a quiet room while we conduct remote hearings. However, the change does come with its own benefits. My petrol consumption, for one, is almost nil. Advocates appear to be finding pragmatic solutions to the problems faced by our collective distancing and, speaking only from my own experience, hearings are much more efficient. Our too-few hours in the day can be spent researching and preparing, as opposed to driving. Due to the more-rigid timetables imposed upon Judges to ensure remote hearings begin as scheduled, Court time is used more efficiently with our judiciary leading from the front to encourage concise submissions and cooperation.

It would seem reasonable to assume that this way of working may continue, to some extent, as we resume normal life and old practices. Particularly for interim case management hearings, the ‘remote-way’ will in many cases be appropriate and fit well within the Court’s overriding objective to deal with cases justly and at a proportionate cost.

If this is adopted (and it’s a big ‘if’), what will be the impact on those of us whose diaries are predominantly filled with directions hearings and case management work?

Although I advocate for using technology to develop and modernise the profession, the impact this will have will not be homogeneous. The greatest impact will likely be seen amongst junior members of the Bar, for whom this work is the basis of their practice. Should we begin to incorporate remote-working as part of our routine, many may see weeks very similar to those faced within ‘lockdown’, where human interaction is minimal and Court advocacy not practiced. It seems difficult upon that landscape to fit in the conversation and support that is integral to maintaining our wellbeing.

Moving forward, we must consider the fine balance to be struck between the need for greater efficiency and the risks of making what is already an independent profession a very lonely place for those within it.