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Barristers struggling with stress under cuts

Barristers across England and Wales are struggling with high workloads, stress, and work/life balance, according to a new report

The Bar Council's Barristers’ Working Lives 2017: Barristers’ attitudes towards their working lives report found that barristers are routinely working the equivalent of at least one or two days per week unpaid. It found that they are also working more hours and suffering from greater levels of stress than in 2013.

Funding cuts, lack of work/life balance and stress were listed as the major push factors for those thinking of changing career.

The report comes as barristers last week called off a two-month dispute over legal funding. More than 100 chambers did not take on legal aid work to protest sustained cuts to the justice system, a decision backed by 90% of the members of the Criminal Bar Association. Earlier in the month Buzzfeed obtained a report by the Ministry of Justice revealing the extensive consequences of cuts to legal aid and self-represented defendants.

Of the 4,902 barristers surveyed for the Bar Council study only 45% felt able to balance their home and working lives. Criminal and family barristers were most likely to say they could not do so (48% of criminal and 58% of family, compared to 20% to 25% for other practice areas).

Only 26% of barristers said they were not under too much work pressure (compared to 33% in 2013); 58% of criminal barristers and 66% of family barristers felt they were under too much work pressure. Practitioners in these areas were also more likely to feel emotionally drained by work, with 50% of criminal barristers and 62% of family barristers feeling this way.

The research raised concerns over the retention of criminal barristers, with more than a third (32%) considering their other career options, compared to 24% of the rest of the profession.

The report also highlighted, however, that despite these challenges, barristers remain enthusiastic and interested in their work. Most (89%) barristers across all areas of practice said they found their work interesting, and 61% across all practice areas agreed that most days they're enthusiastic about work.

But chair of the Bar Council Andrew Walker warned that damage to legal fees caused by inflation may have negatively impacted barristers’ working lives further since the survey was conducted.

While there are some clear positives in our report, there is a notable difference between those practising in crime and, to a degree, in family work and the rest of the bar. It should also be recognised that the survey was conducted in the summer of 2017 but since then legal aid fees have been eroded further by inflation,” he said.

Walker called on the government and the public to recognise the challenges the profession faces, and to provide adequate funding.

“The fact that many saw their workload, stress and work/life balance deteriorate yet further between 2013 and 2017 is a worrying trend," he said. "It shows that we must all maintain our efforts across the bar to support those who are finding practice ever more difficult to sustain, both financially and in terms of maintaining and enjoying a healthy and fulfilling life at work and at home.

"It shows too how important it is for the leadership of the bar to be making our case to the government, in Parliament and to the public about the long-term consequences of failing to recognise and pay properly for the delivery of justice in England and Wales."