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CBA Monday Message 06.11.17

This week, the CBA wellbeing officer Sarah Vine is writing the majority of this message. We are reaching breaking point. Pressures are bearing down on us from all sides and we must resist the imposition of even more. We must take steps to promote our best interests across the range of issues that affect us. This week we focus on the mental health of our profession.

Wellbeing Officer:
Sarah Vine

We Need To Talk
I am yet to speak to a member of the Criminal Bar who is implacably opposed to the Wellbeing Initiative. Contrary to my expectations, I have received almost entirely supportive responses for the idea. Even those who start off with a rather wry scepticism, asking if it’s all about scented candles and chanting ‘Om’ in the robing room, will generally concede the necessity to do something about what I am rather boldly going to describe as a crisis in our profession.

Most seem to agree that mental illness (stress-related conditions, wellbeing issues – call them what you will, they are ultimately all health problems) should not be a source of shame, but few are prepared to admit to them.  It is a brave barrister who blinks first.

It may help if we start to think of these health problems as akin to sporting injuries, not least because they are. The desire to outshine our competitors is, if not universal, commonly held. We train (study, prepare) and race (advise and represent). When we have not done our best, we examine our performance, and seek to rectify our flaws.

The most elite athletic cadre will suffer injuries. Even if their regime is designed to ensure that the risks are minimised, they know that those risks are impossible to eliminate. Few such athletes would attempt to compete with unhealed injuries, and no decent coach would expect them to do so. Remedial measures are taken, and treated every bit as seriously as their gruelling training.  Why, then, should we not have a similar regard for our own health?

Our stressors are, of course, principally psychological. We carry huge burdens of responsibility for those we represent. We deal with material which is often acutely distressing, and with people who are having the worst day of their lives.

We are painfully aware that a single ill-judged question can be the undoing of our case. We have sometimes to deal with tribunals who do not want to listen, with imperfect judges, irascible opponents and instructing solicitors who are spread too thin. The expectations on us from the government and the judiciary escalate without any sign of relenting and, all the while, the money we are paid dwindles.

Is there anyone reading this who has not stared at their bedroom ceiling at 3am, gnawed awake by financial worries? I doubt it.

But the physical dimensions should not be ignored. We work in poorly maintained buildings, with no catering facilities, where conference rooms are made unavailable to us for ‘operational’ reasons, where we have no natural light and the air-conditioning/heating is controlled off-site. None of these failings do anything to ameliorate the stress.

Susan Acland-Hood, the CEO of HMCTS, spoke at this weekend’s annual Bar Conference and, notably, observed that “we have reached the limit of asking people to work harder; we need to change the way we work”. It is hard to disagree, for we are working far beyond effectiveness.

The business case for taking wellbeing seriously is dazzlingly simple. The Criminal Bar strives for excellence. Sick people – including the exceptionally talented – are less able than healthy people to excel. Despite our well-intentioned allegiance to the ‘show must go on’ mentality, available sources suggest that sick people pretending to be healthy are not better than nothing; they are worse. Presenteeism (attending work while sick) is responsible for anything between 150% to 260% of the costs to employers caused by absenteeism.

The greater the sense of insecurity in an occupation, the higher the risk of presenteeism. A reluctance to say ‘no’ is undermining the quality of our work and the very fabric of the CJS. We owe it to the individuals and the wider communities that we represent to do everything we can to be as healthy, effective and resilient as possible. We need to talk, and we need to start telling the truth.

And finally:

  • The CBA Wellbeing policy can be found here.
  • The CBA Wellbeing Twitter account is @WellbeingCBA.
  • The Bar Council’s Wellbeing Portal is an invaluable resource for Barristers, chambers and employees. You can find it at We are also delighted to announce that the CBA has been awarded the Bar Council’s Certificate of Recognition for our wellbeing initiative.
  • Wellness For Law is a network of legal practitioners, academics and clinicians, set up to provide support and exchange information. Contact them at
  • Lawcare has been providing the legal profession with wellbeing support for 20 years. Their details can be found on our sidebar.

None of this would have happened were it not for the remarkable work of Rachel Spearing of 3 Pump Court, and Sam Mercer, the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity Head of Policy. We owe them an incalculable debt of gratitude.

The “One Bar’ 2017  Bar Conference
The CBA would like to thank HH Peter Rook QC, HHJ Deborah Taylor and Eleanor Laws QC for joining us at our panel discussion “A diverse future for all, upholding justice and professional standards in a changing world”. It was a lively session and we are very grateful to all who took part.

Andrew Langdon QC opened the conference with this speech.

Sir Henry Brooke received a standing ovation for his address on legal aid. You can read it here.  Everything he said applies to criminal legal aid as well as the areas he specifically deal with.

The keynote address was given by The Rt Hon Lady Justice Hallett, Vice President of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division. She gave a rousing address in defence of the Bar and described us as a “substantial and precious national asset”.

Section 41
The survey closes today – please do complete if you haven’t already. You can find it here.

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