Circuit Reports

The Leaders report on the form and function of the Circuits today: what makes the Circuit structure work, how it represents individual voices and how it meets the profession’s needs


John Elvidge QC, Leader, The North Eastern Circuit

The North Eastern Circuit lies within the traditional county boundaries of Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire and part of North Lincolnshire. It has over 20 sets of chambers, including several large merged sets, some based exclusively on Circuit and others with links to Manchester, London and Birmingham. With approximately 1,000 practitioners, the local Bar continues to demonstrate flexibility in meeting the legal needs of a dynamic region of almost eight million people.

There is an expanding commercial market with Mercantile Courts now established in Leeds and Newcastle, together with an Administrative Court at Leeds. We aim to take advantage of this growth, but to exploit opportunities in the civil and commercial courts we require a level playing field. To that end, we have to address the national variations in costs regimes, which encourage forum shopping, taking litigants away from their local courts.

The needs of those who cannot afford access to justice present a profound challenge; likewise, so does the depletion of resources in the courts generally. It is hardly surprising that the morale of those working in the courts is low. Investment in high quality digital technology is welcome but benefits will not accrue without a concomitant commitment to human resources. Nor can the courts run efficiently with a growing army of litigants in person. These problems are obviously not peculiar to this Circuit and they will not be solved by pro bono or mediation schemes, valuable as they are.

Here, as elsewhere, the independent criminal Bar is in a critical state: the patient will not survive unless meaningful steps are taken to recruit and retain talent. There are, however, signs that the Government is finally recognising the seriousness of the position. The ingenuity of those who have been formulating practical safeguarding measures may yet offer a way to reverse the trend of the last decade or more. We sincerely hope so.

This is a vibrant Circuit: the overwhelming majority of barristers here are members and almost every chambers has someone involved in Circuit and/or national affairs, in SBAs and at the Bar Council. The current Chairman of the Bar and his immediate predecessor are both members of this Circuit. It matters that everyone can be heard, so the Circuit Executive comprises several representatives from each of our three regions (NE, Central and South) and was expanded recently to engage more civil and family practitioners. Membership of Circuit is open to the employed Bar. The Executive meets every term in the week before Grand Court, when all Circuit members can attend a business meeting to discuss and debate matters before mess and revels. The Leader always attends, in ever bigger suits, to report and chair discussion. The venue for Grand Court rotates about the Circuit.

Mess is a welcome distraction to the pressures of work, a time to relax with colleagues, and helps to foster a collegiate environment that offers support and assists in maintaining standards. Judges attend mess occasionally, strictly by invitation. There are local mess juniors across Circuit. Christmas Mess is held at Sheffield, Newcastle and York; the latter is always oversubscribed and traditionally involves a brass band or choir, carols and prolonged revels. It is Circuit at its most vibrant and generous (last year it raised £16,000 for local charities); past revellers have included an incumbent Presiding Judge.

We play regular golf fixtures against our friends on the Northern Circuit and the Circuit cricket team has been revived. We have golf, cricket and football juniors who would be delighted to arrange fixtures with teams from other Circuits; please contact admin@northeasterncircuit.co.uk to do so. Our sense of community is also manifested by a universal Circuit Life Assurance Scheme, adopted after the untimely death of a Circuiteer who could not obtain life cover.

Education and advocacy training are particular strengths of this Circuit, provided free to members. We appreciate the support of the local judiciary, distinguished academics, senior practitioners, the Education Committee and advocacy trainers in delivering a consistently high standard of education and training. Some events are cross-discipline, such as vulnerable witness training, joint training events with the Northern Coroners and forensic seminars. Members can access lectures on the Circuit website at no cost. All pupils receive new practitioner training locally and participate in an annual mooting competition held in memory of the late Louise Godfrey QC, a former Leader of this Circuit. We have a history of producing some of the finest advocates in the land and we intend that to continue.

It is a great privilege to be Leader of the North Eastern Circuit. I count myself fortunate to receive wise counsel and support from heads of chambers and colleagues across the circuit and beyond, not least the other Circuit Leaders. All of you have made for a happier and more hopeful journey than I had ever imagined.

Andrew O’Byrne QC, Leader, The Northern Circuit

His Honour David Lynch is the Remembrancer of the Northern Circuit and, in 2005, after eight years of extremely hard work, he completed the Northern Circuit Directory 1876 to 2004. In a foreword, Rose LJ (as he then was) described the book as being ‘about the people who have underpinned the administration of justice in the North West over a span of almost 130 years’.

That the Northern Circuit, together with the other five Circuits of England and Wales, has a distinguished history is not in dispute. The question that arises in 2015 is whether that history remains relevant today.

Judge Lynch’s book quotes from John Rowe QC, a former Leader of this Circuit and past Chairman of the Bar: ‘The Circuit system of the Bar is now as strong as it ever has been. I see it as having a long life ... I see it working as follows: finding new markets and adapting and educating itself; and then telling the clients about itself, preferably in several modern languages.’

The Northern Circuit has lived up to John Rowe’s words, which can be found in his foreword to the Bar Directory in 1993. The concept of Circuit Mess remains strong; there are two messes each term in both Manchester and Liverpool and one each in Preston and Carlisle. It is true that messes are less frequent than they used to be and at times the numbers are fewer than in the past, but they continue and help to develop a cohesive and collegiate atmosphere on Circuit.

It is, however, the second part of the quote that is more relevant today. John Rowe foresaw that we would have to change and adapt and that is precisely what has happened. Chambers have grown bigger and provide a far wider service than they did even 20 years ago. Alongside the criminal and family practitioners, there has been a growth in Chancery and commercial work, encouraged by the SBAs.

Criminal practitioners now apply their advocacy skills to regulatory work, inquests, environmental law, health and safety and the like. The Circuit continues to provide education not only for new practitioners but also for those who have been around for some time. There is a Civil Justice Centre in Manchester, a Civil and Family Justice Centre in Liverpool and nationally known solicitors’ firms practice in Manchester, Liverpool and Preston. All of this has been achieved in conjunction with the SBAs.

The Circuit is relevant for another vital reason. Each Circuit Leader represents the members of Circuit collectively. I have spent, along with others, a great deal of time over the last two years in talks and meetings with the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Authority. They don’t speak to me because of who I am; they do speak to me because of who I represent. That is as true in relation to my Circuit as it is to each of the other five Circuits. Together, the Circuits represent the Bar and by that I mean all of the Bar.

This kind of representation is important. One of the most attractive features and greatest strengths of the Bar is that that we are individuals who practise on our own account, albeit that most of us combine within a chambers. Our individuality is also a potential weakness, in that it is sometimes difficult to make those individual voices heard. Involvement with and representation by a Circuit ensures that those voices are heard loud and clear. This is particularly true in the recent past when all the Circuits have combined as one voice.

My Circuit covers an area from the border just north of Carlisle, then south through the glorious Lake District, Lancashire and into Cheshire to the beautiful city of Chester. We move east from Liverpool, through the former Lancashire mill towns and Manchester to the Pennines. That brief geographic description provides some idea of the variety that makes up the Northern Circuit and its practitioners.

So what does the future hold for us? More of the same I hope – that is to say, an evolving ethos of tradition combined with looking to develop new areas of work; to continue what we have always done, but to embrace new ideas and methods of work; and to remain relevant and in doing so to continue to fulfil our primary function to represent our members.

Max Hill QC, Leader, The South Eastern Circuit

All of the Circuit Leaders would agree that times have changed. It used to be a condition of practice on Circuit that you belong to that Circuit. It used to be the case that most practising members on any one Circuit would know each other. Neither of those old rules hold true any longer. The Bar has grown, advocacy rights have expanded and the Circuits have to justify their own existence.

Because the South Eastern Circuit (SEC) is the largest by far, it contains the best and worst features of the new legal professional world. On this Circuit, especially in London, legal practice is at its most diverse, yet there are large numbers of barristers who do not recognise the Circuit as offering anything for them. The (welcome) rise of the Specialist Bar Associations (SBAs) has meant that they are the go-to bodies in each area of practice. In the field of publicly funded law, the need to grow political muscle in order to withstand external pressures has tended to eclipse the once pre-eminent role of the Circuits in scrutinising and consulting on new legislation.

Furthermore, representative bodies in a self-employed profession such as the Bar run the risk of failing to earn the respect of individual practitioners, who have earned the right to say that they answer to no one save themselves.

How then to make your voice felt in a proud and crowded legal professional market?

It is the very independence of self-employed barristers that makes the Circuit structure work and stay relevant in our changed world. We do not answer to traditional career structures or the norms of ‘office politics’. We do not have to toe the line set by the boss. Barristers have no boss.

So when a team of experienced Silks and juniors come together to draft the response to the next Ministry of Justice consultation on legal aid, or court fees, or the preservation of quality in advocacy, they do so unpaid, in their free time and without any need to impress those around them. Independent voices are the stronger for being beholden to no one.

When hundreds of Circuit members come together, online or in a Hall or other meeting place, to debate government policy or to analyse pending legislation, they do so for nothing save the interests of the justice system in this country, or sometimes around the world. When Circuit members do all of this work, drawing on their personal experience from every corner of practice at the Bar, they deserve to be listened to. That is the core strength of the SEC, drawn from thousands of members and represented by a large committee that can claim to speak for all practice areas.

This is the rationale for maintaining the Circuit system. Where a set of chambers aims to provide shelter and support for 100 barristers (now that sets have grown so large), the Circuit does so for thousands.

The SEC has always looked after me. I started my professional life as a Circuiteer, practising throughout East Anglia in the late 1980s, and joining the Committee of the Essex Bar Mess, where I became Junior in the early 90s. I was later Circuit Junior, then Recorder, before leaving for a spell as Secretary then Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) before returning to the Circuit as Leader in November 2014.

Whilst I enjoyed my time at the CBA, doing my best to carry nationwide responsibility for the criminal Bar, it felt good to return to the South Eastern Circuit.

Of all our current work, I regard the creation of the South Eastern Circuit Access to Justice Working Group, earlier this year, as the greatest achievement of my time at the SEC. This is where members who practise in crime, family, employment, insurance and general common law meet to discuss and write about legal and policy issues across the spectrum, from the Human Rights Act to employment tribunal fees. During times of real challenge and change, particularly within the criminal justice system, bringing together barristers of every persuasion is the best way that I know to maintain the consultative function of the Circuit, in the name of all of the members we represent. The CBA remains on the front line in fighting for the survival of the publicly funded criminal Bar; the Circuit lends vital support in that fight, whilst holding a far wider brief.

As in chambers, where a handful of members tend to do the heavy lifting, so the Circuit relies upon those who are prepared to come forward. The SEC has the Circuit Officers and Committee at the centre, meeting on a monthly basis (Officers or Committee), together with 11 London and regional Bar Messes, each of which has a Chairman and Junior together with its own Committee. Please come forward and play your part.

Andrew Langdon QC, Leader, The Western Circuit

The Western Circuit has existed since the Middle Ages. Some things have changed. To see by how much, visit our website: westerncircuit.co.uk.

By 1814, records show that there were 60 barristers on Circuit travelling with the court through Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Bristol, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. In 1971, Gloucestershire was annexed.

Now membership of the Circuit is over 1,200. Fifty new members joined in the last year. We have chambers located on Circuit in Bristol, Winchester, Southampton, Portsmouth, Lewes, Bournemouth, Exeter, Taunton, Plymouth and Truro. But the original London sets that fed the Western Circuit still boast a large number of Western Circuiteers. They are an important part of the Circuit.

Our proudest boast is education: pupils, new practitioners and the continuing education of all members. Silks, and senior and junior barristers of all disciplines give of their time under the directorship of our former Circuit Leader Philip Mott QC to deliver education and training of the highest quality available anywhere. We encourage the Advocacy Training Council and others to acknowledge the commitment and the expertise and delivery of training on Circuit. The national delivery of training programmes (for example, concerning vulnerable witnesses) has to be through the Circuits. It cannot be London centric.

In memory of one of our favourite sons, Sam Butterfield, the Western Circuit awards an annual scholarship – the Butterfield Scholarship – funding up to £12,000 towards an additional pupillage for a set of chambers on Circuit.

The Circuit is our Trade Union. History has shown that difficult issues that may arise concerning judges, or chambers or other professional relationships, may best be handled by the Circuit and where necessary the Leader. We try also to provide welfare advice and support. Rachel Spearing, a former Western Circuit Junior, has led the way with the Wellbeing Project at a national level.

A year ago, we amended our constitution to bring Practice Area Members into the Circuit Committee, drawn from family, employment, civil and crime. By this means, the Circuit, linking with the SBAs, can try to represent the fields of practice of its members.

We hold three Grand Nights a year – in Exeter, Bristol and Winchester – complemented by a host of local Bar Messes. Each represents a good opportunity for junior barristers to meet others, including judges, informally. Sometimes, the social events coincide with the training events. Last week in Bristol, a High Court judge, a Mercantile judge and a Circuit judge delivered a joint seminar on appellate advocacy, before we went on to a local Bar mess.

The membership supports the Leader’s efforts to contribute to the national debate. I have spent a great deal of time with the other Circuit Leaders in organising and presenting the arguments against further legal aid cuts, QASA, the disastrous consequences of LASPO and the proliferation of litigants in person. We have recently fought for more robust prohibition of referral fees, for safeguards for choice of advocate and for a new Advocates’ Graduated Fee scheme. I keep the Circuit abreast of what is happening by sending bulletins to members and by regular phone-ins with heads of chambers and their team leaders.

The Circuits are a powerful force for change when necessary, but operate as a brake when the consequences are plainly not in the public interest. When the Circuits unite and speak with one voice through their Leaders, they are a force to be reckoned with. They provide continuity and so complement the Bar Council and the SBAs, where the Chairs are in post for only one year.

The current team of Circuit Leaders meet with the Lord Chancellor, the DPP, the Law Officers, the BSB and the Chairs of the various SBAs. We are part of the Bar Council and its GMC. We do not always agree with what the Bar Council or the SBAs propose, but a process of discussion and compromise works well in the best interests of us all.

On a personal level, working with other Bar Leaders is an immense privilege. I am very proud of the Circuit I represent. My outlook has been forged in the robing rooms and proud courts all over the West Country. There, I learnt about what was important and in keeping with tradition on Circuit – a wider code of conduct than you will find in anything published by the BSB. I am impatient with those that think the Circuit’s traditions are merely nostalgic. Those traditions that endure do so because they still resonate. The reason we have survived since the Middle Ages is because we change with the times. In fact, the Circuits often lead the way.

As with every predecessor of mine, I find the honour of representing my Circuit to be all the motivation I need. I know the same applies to the other five Leaders.

Circuit Reports from Paul Lewis QC (Leader of the Wales and Chester Circuit) and Richard Atkins QC (Leader of the Midland Circuit) will follow in the next issue of Counsel.

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