Crime continues to fall yet at the same time there has been a steady increase in the
number of barristers at the self-employed Bar. “The Bar has to focus on how to manage the process of bringing the criminal Bar down to a sustainable size. I know this is not an easy matter but it is not one we can shirk.”
On QASA, the Attorney General supported “any process that helps to promote and bolster the high standards of which the criminal Bar is rightly proud, and which weeds out those who are not able to achieve them”. Whilst the Divisional Court judgment recognised problems with process and implementation, “that is inevitable and certainly not indicative of a fundamental flaw in the principle of assessment”.
“For a profession like ours which prides itself on quality, to refuse to be assessed does not strengthen our cause, and indeed is in my view completely counter- productive.”
On legal aid reform, he said: “While there are savings to be made through greater efficiency in the justice system, for example through increasing digitisation and use of video technology, these do not provide complete alternatives to legal aid reform.”
His advice to the Bar was to embrace the new – such as alternative business structures (ABS) – whilst preserving the best of the past and safeguarding its ethical standards.
“Working creatively and thinking beyond traditional constraints, chambers and their members can be at the forefront of ABS advance. Some have viewed these changes with deep misgiving; could this work be carried out while maintaining ethical standards? I believe the Handbook and new Code of Conduct allow this,” he said.
Barristers should also look to opportunities abroad: the overseas market is “hungry for those educated and experienced in our system of justice and jurisprudence”.
The Handbook was welcomed as a “substantial work of consolidation and updating” which would “ultimately place practitioners in a much stronger position to face the future”, whilst acknowledging that “some in the profession may not immediately recognise the value of it”.
The Attorney General concluded: “The reputation of the Bar will continue to depend
on its ethical standards and its professional expertise. Despite the current challenges to which I have referred, and while we must accept that some change is necessary, I see no reason why the Bar should not continue to thrive as it has done for the last seven centuries.”
Sir Bill Jeffrey’s review of the provision of independent criminal advocacy – which is due to report at the end of March – would be “crucial” in this context, he added. The criminal Bar was also advised to consider significant changes by the Legal Services Board in its submission to the Jeffrey Review. It said that criminal barristers should look to form ABSs with employed solicitors and employ paralegals to undertake work at lower cost, but that there should not be any attempt “to force people into new business models who believe that they can make a more traditional pattern of practice pay”.
The latest Bar Barometer shows that the number of practising barristers continues to increase, to 15,585 in 2012, including 12,680 at the self-employed Bar.