May I first say that I do hope you and your family are keeping well. For any who have fallen ill, I wish you a full and speedy recovery.
This is an extraordinary time for us all, no matter where in the world we are. In almost no time at all, we have had to make radical adjustments to our lives and our working habits and the outlook creates great uncertainty for many, including those who have recently started in practice, pupils and students.
The Inn, as much as any organisation, is faced with uncertainty and it too has had to make rapid and far-reaching changes to the way it operates.
I therefore want to give you an overview of the approach which the Inn is taking to the current circumstances. You will appreciate that in a rapidly changing environment all of this remains under review. You can find more detail under Our Response to Covid-19.
I am in daily contact with the Under Treasurer and in regular contact with heads of departments and the chairs of those Inn committees which are most immediately affected.
Essentially, the approach which we have agreed is that the Inn:
- will, of course, take account of government advice, both as a business and as an employer;
- expects employees to act in accordance with government advice for individuals;
- unless that advice changes, will work on the basis that disruption may continue until the end of July;
- will aim to continue so far as possible the full range of services, although the level of service is bound to be affected;
- will maintain appropriate financial controls;
- will look to the longer-term consequences of its decisions and avoid acting in a way which will cause problems later.
In practical terms, Inn events scheduled to take place between now and the end of May have been cancelled (there is, of course, no certainty about when we will be able to resume this aspect of our communal life).
The estate is currently closed to the general public, with only the gatehouse entrance open. The Inn’s IT team is working to develop a feasible solution to video conferencing for committee meetings. This is unlikely to be practicable for Council itself, and items of business which cannot be delayed (such as my nomination for next year’s Master of the Walks) will need to be handled in correspondence.
From a financial perspective, the Inn has sufficient reserves to continue to operate for the foreseeable future: some costs have already reduced, although some sources of income have also been curtailed. Greater pressure will arise on the Inn’s cashflow in the short term if tenants are unable and/or unwilling to pay their rent.
We are very aware of the potential impact of the pandemic on the profession as a whole. A number of tenants have written asking about rent deferrals or ‘holidays’. This is a difficult issue to get right: while we wish to support the Bar at a time of uncertainty, we continue to have to meet our own outgoings and no one yet has a clear idea about what the impact of the current situation will be (although it will vary from set to set). And of course, not all barristers are tenants of the Inns. That is true of all chambers out of London and it is true also of many chambers within London.
One of our guiding principles in terms of mitigating the impact on the profession is that we want to give any help where it is most needed – we will therefore expect people to access government and other support where it is available and we will need to be sure that when help is requested it relates to difficulty arising from the pandemic.
We have written to tenants and said that we will consider requests for an interest-free deferral of a proportion of rent due on the June/July and subsequent quarter days on a case by case basis, taking into account payment history and current outstanding balances, as well as evidence of hardship. We are taking a similar approach to residential tenants. We have also set aside some existing budget as a hardship fund, which we will aim to target to those in greatest need of support (the priority here is likely to be new tenants and pupils).
Application forms for such support will be available from 1 May. They will include guidance on the type of evidence required.
In terms of educational activity, the BSB has cancelled the centralised BPTC and BTT examinations due to take place in April. The next scheduled opportunity to take the centralised exams will be in August 2020. The Inn has cancelled qualifying sessions up to the end of May, and is working with the BSB, COIC and the other Inns on the scope for remote training provision. However, we do not expect many people to be ready for call in July and have therefore scheduled an additional Call Day in November.
We wish to retain the commitment and skills of the expert team of employees which has been built up over the years, but recruitment has been curtailed for obvious reasons. We continue to pay 100% of basic pay and have no plans for any redundancies. We are looking at the potential for using government schemes to offset some salary costs.
Those of you particularly interested in the estate will also wish to know that at present work on the Great Hall and Library project continues, although other activity has reduced significantly. A particularly close eye has been kept on government guidance in relation to travel to work and work on site, which was not initially entirely clear.
The Library is closed but the Enquiry Team is providing a remote enquiry and document supply service. Although the team do not have access to all the resources of the physical collection, they have a considerable range of online databases at their disposal. The team is also working closely with the other Inn libraries and legal publishers to maximise their ability to respond to requests. I know how valuable their support has been to a number of you. During the period of the Inn’s closure we are not charging for document supply requests.
A dedicated page has been created which contains full details of the Library and online resources which are available to members during the closure period – including offers of trial access to online databases. Please do continue to contact the team with enquiries or document supply requests and publicise this to colleagues.
Like other churches in London, the Chapel is now closed and no services will be held there in the coming weeks. The Preacher is always happy to provide a listening ear and pastoral support to members so please do feel free to email her.
I would like to thank Sheila and the choir for the videos which I hope many of you have seen. Sheila continues with her work in helping those wishing to have weddings and memorial services, when they become possible, and I am sure you will all agree with me that her commitment to the Inn and its members, on a general and personal level, is a source of strength and comfort to us.
Other Sources of Advice & Information
I do hope that you find this update helpful. The Under Treasurer and I will continue to keep you informed through the website, the newsletter and updates on key issues. Other sources of useful information are below:
I wish to pay tribute to the Under Treasurer and her team for the extraordinary efforts that they are making to ensure the continued operation of the Inn. Well before the lockdown began the team began making serious preparations for remote working and other steps needed to deal with the present situation. This enabled the Inn to comply immediately with the new restrictions and to keep the business of the Inn running. I know from my own contact with them that they continue to deal with a wide range of issues, by no means all arising from the pandemic, which face the Inn.
We all look forward to a return to our normal ways of working and to the communal life of the Inn. We can do so with confidence but, in the meantime, we must face the present situation with resilience, calmness and consideration for the needs of others.
The Rt Hon Lord Justice David Richards, Treasurer