'Real risk' of too few barristers for judicial system post Covid-19
Northern Ireland's system has been left "fragile" by the Covid-19 pandemic, with a "real risk" there will not be enough barristers left to deal with cases when restrictions are lifted.
The chair of the Bar of Northern Ireland Sarah Ramsey QC raised the prospect of barristers becoming entirely "extinct", following the huge drop in court hearings and other work - despite efforts by Courts Service to facilitate urgent hearings and deliver justice remotely.
A "stark and concerning" survey of members conducted last month revealed almost a quarter had no paid work, with 53 per cent having less than a tenth of their normal workload.
With more than half of barristers reporting more than four-week delays in receiving payment, 86 per cent were predicting the pandemic will make their work less viable and 53 per cent saying if things did not change before September "their practices will fail or become unsustainable".
In April, fewer than three out of five barristers were eligible for any kind of government assistance and Ms Ramsey warned of the prospect of "no barristers left to help ensure the functioning of the justice system after the crisis recedes".
Since then efforts have been made to expand court business and an interim payment scheme and bounce-back loans have alleviated some of pressure.
However, the Bar Council said the situation remains "very difficult for our members".
"The situation is very fragile and the threats described in our April survey remain real," a spokeswoman said.
"We will be monitoring events closely and are reliant on a package of assistance - courts business; government assistance; interim payments and other measures - to help."
The council said barristers "have an important role in serving the administration of justice and need to be helped yet some fall through cracks of assistance provided".
It also flagged concerns that the return of `normal' court business, will see increased contact with people in public spaces with its attendant health and safety implication while Covid-19 remains a live threat.