Exclusive: Faculty establishes emergency fund for advocates affected by Covid crisis

Exclusive: Faculty establishes emergency fund for advocates affected by Covid crisis

Roddy Dunlop QC

The Faculty of Advocates has established an emergency fund to assist members who have been tipped into financial distress by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the hard-pressed criminal bar have been especially affected by the suspension of criminal trials in Scotland. These were brought to a halt in March and have only resumed in recent weeks, in new socially-distanced formats that greatly limit the number of trials that can be held at any one time.

Many advocates have also fallen between the cracks when it comes to the various government assistance schemes. But with no income, they have still had to meet running costs and also now face having to make their self-employment tax payments to HMRC which fall due twice-yearly in July and January.

Insolvency for some may be a sad but inevitable consequence.

The Dean of Faculty has said, however, that he is confident advocates will weather the COVID-19 storm.

Roddy Dunlop QC, who took up the post last month, said that while Faculty’s finances “remain solid”, financial distress for some members “must be a possibility”.

He added: “I am acutely aware of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on criminal practitioners standing the near-complete cessation of work.

“That said, trials have now restarted and we are hoping to see a significant increase in cases for the criminal bar.”

Advocates who do suffer bankruptcy are not automatically suspended as solicitors are by law.

“Whether or not a member of Faculty were permitted to continue to practise following a bankruptcy would turn on the precise circumstances leading to the bankruptcy, and one would have to think that the impact of the current crisis would be highly material in any consideration of those circumstances,” Mr Dunlop said.

While he did not think the crisis would ultimately lead to a fused profession, in which there would be no independent bar, “something for which I detect little or no appetite”, he reiterated the Faculty’s interest in an ‘incorporated counsel’ model – which would see advocates practise via a private limited company. This suggestion, first set out in the Faculty’s response to the Roberton Review on the regulation of legal services in Scotland, was, he said, “sensible and appropriate”. The bar’s response stated that solicitors, and particularly solicitor advocates, arguably enjoy an unfair competitive advantage over advocates as they benefit from the protection of limited liability.

The Faculty’s emergency fund consists of voluntary donations from members.

Mr Dunlop said: “One of the core strengths of Faculty is its collegiate spirit, and that has perhaps never been more apparent than it is now. The emergency fund is the result of donations which are entirely anonymous, and looking beyond that the moral support that members have been providing to each other has been real and commendable. I do not underestimate the crisis or the challenges that it poses for one second, but I have no doubt that Faculty will survive them.”

Exclusive: Faculty establishes emergency fund for advocates affected by Covid crisis

Ronnie Renucci QC

Newly-appointed Vice-Dean of Faculty and President of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, Ronnie Renucci QC, told SLN that he the situation was aggravated by the fact much of the bar was ineligible for UK government assistance.

He said: “This has clearly been a challenging time for the criminal bar, but I share the Dean’s confidence that we will ultimately weather the storm. The cessation of work was aggravated by the fact that the vast majority of practitioners at the criminal bar did not qualify for any of the government’s coronavirus financial assistance measures.

“That makes the fact that the criminal bar was prepared to stand as one on a point of principle against the Scottish government’s initial ‘non-jury trials’ provision, when it wasn’t in their personal interests to do so, all the more admirable.

“To put one’s principles before personal gain is a challenging test of character, it is one the criminal bar passed with flying colours and we are all the more stronger for that.”

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