This year’s Bar Council Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference was, for the first time, entirely virtual. Held over four days (18-21 November), the Conference was a mirror, thematically, to what has been a strange and eventful year: Covid; a government breaching international law, seeking to limit JR, and pushing the ‘lefty activist lawyers’ trope; and the depressing disparity in the pay of men and women, white barristers and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. But also, one thing with the potential to produce truly positive results if we keep it going, a concerted effort to tackle the lack of diversity within the profession and acknowledge the fact that the legal system – including in terms of how it treats the professionals working within it – has a lot of work to do in terms of achieving racial equality.
As Chair of the Bar Amanda Pinto QC observed, Covid has brought into sharp focus the failings of our system, but it has also provided an opportunity to improve it. This was a theme taken up by the Lord Chief Justice in his Address, with particular focus on the use of technology and his belief that the Reform Programme is intertwined with recovery. As he put it, the days of advocates travelling hundreds of miles for short hearings “are, I think, gone for good.”
One of the first sessions was “Taking Action – Race and the Bar.” The panel (Simon Regis (Chair), Jo Sidhu QC, Martin Forde QC, Baroness Ruth Hunt, Natasha Shotunde, and David Lammy MP) discussed the need for a paradigmatic shift in the current status to emerge from the spotlight shone on this subject, the almost revolutionary change in the thinking of mainstream society about racism (MFQC), brought about by the confluence of George Floyd’s murder and Covid. At the same time, there was a sense that despair is waiting in the wings should those with the responsibility to do so, fail (once again) to step up and ensure that real change results in a Bar which has (as Natasha Shotunde put it) created a cultural identity which has been exclusionary rather than inclusionary.
The Conference continued with a session on Reforming the Justice System. Robert Buckland MP discussed his plans and hopes for the next few years, progress so far with CLAR part 2, the new sentencing code and the impact of leaving the EU. This was followed by useful sessions on a variety of topics. ‘Building Resilience Through Adversity’ provided insight and helpful tips on dealing with stress, through the ‘B-A-S-I-C-S’ model. There were sessions on ‘ethics and advocacy’, making the most of your practice review, and even a Bar Council Book Club.
All in all, the message was that (despite current circumstances) there is every chance of a bright and hopeful future for the Bar.
RLC member Zoë Chapman is a Social Mobility Advocate for the Bar Council.