Statement on The Closure of Charter Chambers
It is with regret that after many years we announce the closure of Charter Chambers (‘Charter’).
On 30 October 2020, Charter will cease to operate as a set of barristers.
Although Charter will formally close on 30 October 2020, until that time our clerks and all members will continue to practise as part of the set, and from then on all of our members will continue their own practices. Clients can be assured that this event will not impact on the continuity of services any one of us provide.
Members of Charter will, in the coming weeks, make their plans clear for the future to our friends, solicitors and clients. Updates will be posted on our website in accordance with the Bar Standards Board Guidance on Closure. If there are any concerns in this regard, please contact our clerks or the individual instructed barristers via email or telephone.
Charter has been a leading set of criminal and regulatory practitioners over a number of decades. Its barristers are recognised as leaders in their fields. The ethos of the set has always been to provide the highest quality advocacy and advice to clients, whether they are professional, institutional, corporate or private individuals. Many of our clients are ordinary people who for the large part have been dependent on Legal Aid, without which they would have been unlikely to gain access to the skilled advocacy and legal services which we have provided for many years.
Charter has always allowed its tenants to develop their practices and attain the highest ranks within the profession and judiciary. It acquired and maintained a reputation as an accessible, inclusive, friendly, professional environment for its members and our professional clients. Charter’s ethos ensured a much valued and loyal solicitor, institutional and professional client base.
The decision to close has been informed by two principal factors: the pending sale of 33 John Street and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The building we have occupied for 15 years is owned by a (Pension) Trust whose members are all either current or former members. In recent years the manner in which barristers practise has changed so dramatically that the need for a large, prestigious building has ebbed away. Our digital remote working practices meant that a decision was taken in early 2019 that Charter would not renew its lease. Separately, but influenced by this decision, the Trustees determined to market the building for sale.
The end of the lease was always intended to provide us with a natural waypoint when we would have an opportunity to review Charter’s future. This review necessarily had to take into account the many decades of deliberate neglect the justice system has suffered under all governments. The underfunding of the courts, court staff and judiciary and the highly damaging cuts made to the levels of remuneration in publicly funded work for our profession has driven so many young and talented people away from a career at the publicly funded Bar. It has significantly impacted adversely on diversity and inclusion in our profession and in turn impeded access to justice for ordinary people.
Charter is and has been a profitable business. Through our private work Charter has been fortunate enough, unlike many other sets, to have accumulated financial reserves to protect itself against reasonably foreseeable adverse business events and anticipate the often and ever changing, damaging government policies aimed at the justice system.
Then we faced the Covid-19 pandemic. It required the extended lockdown which brought with it the necessarily abrupt closure of the criminal courts and tribunals to all work save for in the early days a relatively small number of digitally remote case progression hearings. Business interruption and loss is a hardship that many have had to endure during this pandemic. The challenge it presented Charter – along with many other chambers – were the consequential fiscal challenges. As the day to day headlines demonstrate, no businesses could have reasonably foreseen its impact.
What has it done to the justice system?
A sensible assessment has led Charter to the inevitable conclusion that courts and tribunals are unlikely to return to normal operation until the medical advice to government changes, a vaccination becomes available or the government provides sufficient extra courtrooms so that former case capacity returns – something which to date, it has failed to demonstrate it has the ability to do with any speed at all.
It was this assessment – alongside a review of chambers’ own needs for its future – that led Charter to the unanimous conclusion that to continue as we were would inevitably lead us to depleting our financial reserves and result in the set entering into significant borrowing, for the first time in some years, and potentially for a lengthy period and with a very uncertain future.
In business, borrowing requires a sensible risk-assessment. Businesses borrow in anticipation that it will provide them with stability, growth and profitable returns. The contradictory message from the government to the self-employed Bar is that we should borrow our way out of this so that we continue to support and sustain the justice system. That is the job of government, not the professions. Such assistance that has been made available has not been specific to our business sector, despite repeated requests, and thus is wholly unsuited to the unique way in which barristers’ chambers operate.
Charter had the opportunity in this difficult time, with its building lease coming to an end, to assess this wider position after Covid-19 has impacted. Its members came to an informed, rational and unanimous decision that they were not prepared to engage in such a business risk.
Neil Hawes QC
Head of Charter Chambers