Circuit Reports

In the second part of Counsel’s report on the role of the Circuits today, we hear from Leaders Paul Lewis QC and Richard Atkins QC on what makes the Circuit structure work and how it meets the profession’s needs


Paul Lewis QC, Leader, The Wales and Chester Circuit

We are by far the smallest of the six Circuits. We are probably fewer in number than the Birmingham Bar alone, yet our size means that we are cohesive, and most of our members are well known to one another. Our sets of chambers are generally situated along the M4 corridor in South Wales. We also maintain strong traditional links with a number of London sets.

The constitutional title of our Circuit is now, strictly speaking, a misnomer. Chester has been an administrative part of the Northern Circuit for some years, but the Bar there continues to service the courts of North Wales. Many Chester-based practitioners remain active members of our Circuit, and several judges who sit there are our former circuiteers. The Chester Bar is also represented on the Circuit Management Board. The spiritual home of Chester is still the Wales and Chester Circuit, as the Leader of the Northern Circuit generously acknowledged in a Bar mess our two Circuits jointly held in the city recently. We hold Chester dear.

Like the other Circuits, we still rely to a significant degree upon traditional areas of practice – criminal, family and personal injury work in particular. There is, however, a realisation that legal aid cuts and a reduction in the volume of work available in these fields means that we must diversify. We cannot be complacent or stand still if we are to flourish.

We are unique among the Circuits in that, within our Circuit borders, there is a developing body of law that does not apply elsewhere. Since legislative competence was devolved to the Welsh Assembly in a number of discrete areas, the growth of a body of ‘Welsh law’ has provided opportunities that may not exist elsewhere, and which our members are determined to grasp. We also recognise that traditional methods of working are changing, and we are flexible enough to accommodate the proposed changes.

To these ends, a number of our forward-thinking members are in the process of developing and setting up an Inn of Wales – a Centre of Excellence for Legal Services. Situated in an historic building in the heart of Cardiff, the Inn of Wales project will embrace digital-working. It is intended to provide state of the art library and research facilities; video-link, lecture hall and conferencing capabilities; and an Alternative Dispute Resolution/Mediation Centre, in addition to substantial accommodation and hospitality facilities specifically tailored to the needs of the legal profession. The ambitious project is sure evidence of our circuiteers’ innovative attitudes and readiness to embrace an evolving legal world.

To meet new challenges, it is of course essential that we are properly prepared and trained. As with other Circuits, it is often impossible for our members to attend lectures and educational events that are all too frequently staged in London. We have therefore become self-sufficient in this regard, and the Circuit provides high-quality education and training to all our members. This is vital work, and I am especially grateful to our Circuit Director of Education, Tracey Lloyd–Nesling, for her unstinting dedication to the cause.

We enjoy an active social life on Circuit, with messes held this year in Cardiff, Swansea and Chester. Such events provide an opportunity for practitioners from different cities and practice areas to meet, often in the company of our judges. Such messes are an essential part of Circuit life, and they remain an important factor in fostering good relations between Bar and Bench.

Many members of Circuit are also members of Specialist Bar Associations such as the CBA (Criminal Bar Association) and the FLBA (Family Law Bar Association). We work together with the SBAs and with the Bar Council and other Circuit Leaders in promoting the interests of our members.

My brief, of course, is wide. It includes representing Circuit members from all fields of practice in meetings with Government ministers, officials, the judiciary and others. I am an ex officio member of the Bar Council, and sit on its General Management Committee. I also have a role to play in helping to maintain professional standards and discipline on Circuit, and where necessary, in providing advice and support to those who ask for it.

It is a great privilege to be Leader of this Circuit, and I am immensely grateful to all those members who have offered me moral and practical support during my time in office. I look forward to the remainder of my term.

Richard Atkins QC, Leader, The Midland Circuit

By the time you read this article, you will I suspect have read last month’s articles by the Leaders of the South Eastern, Western, North Eastern and Northern Circuits, and the article above by the Leader of the Wales and Chester Circuit. You will have realised that as Circuit Leaders we are all very proud of our Circuits and each believe that we lead the best Circuit. The truth of course is that no one Circuit is better than another and in fact the Circuits are in many respects the backbone of the Bar. It has been a real privilege to work so closely with the other Circuit Leaders, all of whom give unstintingly of their time in an effort to ensure that the lives and practices of all members of the Bar are improved.

I do not need to tell you that each Circuit has developed its own niche areas of practice and are very proud of specialist courts which are now well established outside of London, such as the Mercantile Court or the Administrative Court as we have in Birmingham. These sit alongside the strong practices in the family, criminal and civil courts across the Circuit.

The Midland Circuit has had a chequered history. It was the Midland Circuit, then it became the Midland and Oxford Circuit, before reverting once again to the Midland Circuit. It covers an area from Lincoln in the east, to Hereford and Shrewsbury in the west, up to Stoke on Trent in the north, and down to Warwick in the south. There are chambers all across the Circuit as well as in London. Because of our central position we attract barristers from all of the other Circuits, who clearly like coming to see how it is done.

Unlike some of the other Circuits we had not been very good at maintaining our traditions of Circuit messes until recently. I have been keen to re-energise the ‘fun’ on Circuit, having enjoyed the hospitality of the Northern and North Eastern Circuits, where Circuit messes are alive and well. So in the last year we have held messes in Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester, two excellent dinners at the Birmingham Council House and Gray’s Inn and a very entertaining Grand Night in Nottingham. Our Circuit education programme recently restarted with a family seminar led by two former Circuit members now on the High Court Bench and a local Silk. We are also very fortunate to have a well-established and thriving Advocacy Training programme led by Andrew Smith QC and Shaun Smith QC, with assistance from many Silks, juniors and judges on the Circuit.

I have been asked whether the Circuits and Circuit Leaders continue to have any relevance in this modern day and age with so many Specialist Bar Associations catering for the needs of most areas of practice. My answer, it will not surprise you to hear, is a resounding ‘yes they do’. As Leader of the Circuit I see my role as being responsible for the welfare of all Circuit members, regardless of their areas of practice. I have heard it suggested that the Circuits are really only relevant to criminal practitioners. I am afraid I consider this to be a particularly uninformed view. The Circuit is one of the most important bodies in the life of the pupil and young practitioner, without which it would become very difficult for them to complete their advocacy and ethics training. But it does not end there. In recent years a lot of the Circuit Leaders’ time has been taken up dealing with criminal matters, but the Leaders also make representations on all matters affecting the Bar including for example the Jackson reforms, and family legal aid. With the current review of the civil courts’ structure underway, I suspect that it will only be a matter of time before I have to dust off my Bar School notes on civil matters.

The Leaders have an automatic place on the Bar Council and its General Management Committee. We are involved in decision making in respect of all areas of practice and have meetings with amongst others the Lord Chancellor, the Ministry of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice, the President of the Queen’s Bench Division, the presiding judges, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, the shadow justice team and the Bar Standards Board to name but a few. I also recently addressed the Westminster Legal Policy Forum and attended a meeting of all the agencies and senior judges on the Midland Circuit dealing with the ‘Better Case Management’ scheme.

For the Bar to remain strong, it is in my opinion important that the Circuits remain strong and that the Circuits’ voices are heard. It will be a sad day and to the Bar’s detriment if those who hold power no longer seek the opinion of the Circuit Leaders. The Circuit Leaders are in constant communication with each other and I feel very honoured to be part of this small group that, along with others, fights so hard for the Bar and is made up of people I now consider to be my friends.

We are a vibrant, happy and friendly Circuit, but this will only remain so if all members play a part. The Midland Circuit has produced many fine advocates and judges and it was a pleasure at our recent dinner at Gray’s Inn to see so many members and former members coming together to celebrate all that is good about Circuit life. It is an immense privilege to lead the Circuit and I hope that the Midland Circuit and the other Circuits will continue to thrive for many centuries to come.

Circuit reports from John Elvidge QC (for the North Eastern Circuit), Andrew O’Byrne QC (for the Northern Circuit), Max Hill QC (for the South Eastern Circuit) and Andrew Langdon QC (for the Western Circuit) appeared in the December issue of Counsel.

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