A diplomatic solution

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David Wurtzel meets Sir Andrew Burns, the new Chair of the Bar Standards Board

Sir Andrew Burns is the third Chair of the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the first man to hold the post, and resolutely a layman. 


“They wanted someone who had no close connection to the law; that’s fine for the selectors, but quite a challenge for the individual concerned, namely, me, in that my learning curve is rather steep.”

He has been on steep learning curves before. A career diplomat, he was Ambassador to Israel (1992-95), Consul-General in Hong Kong (1997-2000) and latterly High Commissioner to Canada (2000-03). He is used to finding himself in unfamiliar territory. “You have to get a quick understanding about it, meet the right people, people who can give you quick insights into the way the landscape works. You throw yourself into a society, you try to develop your own bearings on the issues, tease out your understanding of what is more and less important.” He has already been busy, meeting judges, barristers and fellow regulators and he has attended his first Bar Council meetings. The closest he had got to the law is that a daughter-in-law is a solicitor, and his children’s friends include publicly funded barristers, so he is aware of the strains on practitioners.

Although he left the Foreign Office over a decade ago, it can hardly be said that Sir Andrew has retired, any more so than his predecessor, Baroness Deech, who is of the same generation. He has been a Governor of the BBC, Chairman of the Council of Royal Holloway, University of London for seven years and is still a Governor of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He hugely admires all those institutions and the quality of the people who work in them. He feels the same way already about the people he has met and will be working with at the BSB. One feels that his service as Ambassador to Israel must have given him a perspective on what is and isn’t an intractable issue. He coincided in fact almost exactly with the Prime Ministership of Yitzhak Rabin and a period when “the mood in many parts of Israel was one of ‘At last, we may have a chance of reaching an agreement’”.

Since 2010 he has been the UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, ensuring that the UK plays its full part in fulfilling intergovernmental commitments to ensure that the events of the Holocaust are understood and remembered, that archives are open and accessible and that there is effective restitution of stolen assets and looted property. Britain is a signatory to the Stockholm Declaration of 2000 which itself arose from the widespread realisation that as the number of survivors declined, future generations were not being properly educated about “such an unprecedented collapse in civilisational values”. On 9 March he completed his term as Chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance which promotes Holocaust education, remembrance and research. He has a track record for being the chair of multi-committee committees: he was also head of the Committee of University Chairs, which issues the Code of Governance for governing bodies and is concerned with academic autonomy. He saw the similarity with the legal world, “where you are trying to preserve the independence of the practitioners and the integrity of the processes of justice while bringing together the public interest, the consumer interest”.

Inevitably his first tasks have been to deal with things which have already been in the pipeline, and in the pipeline for some time. He said that he wants to keep his sights on the longer view and a sense of perspective. His main priority was to continue to move the BSB to being “a really modern, efficient regulator and one which commands maximum credibility out in the market place with the various stakeholders but also commands the trust and confidence of the profession”. He sees no inconsistency there. He recognised the need to get the “evidentiary basis for the regulation, understanding the market place and what consumers want” while making sure “we have a really successful profession which is serving the needs of the public and protecting the core values of our justice system”.

Precisely because he comes from outside the law he understands that “regulation has been a factor in everyone’s life for yonks”. When we met the Supreme Court had not yet heard the appeal in the legal challenge to the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) but he noted that it had already decided that there was no prospect of success in arguing that it undermined the independence of the Bar. He felt that QASA was an “appropriate response to the need to quality assure barristers” and he saw nothing wrong with taking someone “off the road for a while” if they were not good enough. “We live in a world in which people are expected to conform with certain standards.” If the Supreme Court rejects the appeal, the likelihood is that QASA will be back in business.

With the BSB’s eyes on QASA in recent years it has not involved itself in the issue of ticketing of advocates in cases involving vulnerable witnesses and defendants. Ticketing had been recommended by the Advocacy Training Council in April 2011 in its report Raising the Bar but rejected by the practising Bar and its leadership until, in September 2014, the Lord Chancellor announced that it would become a requirement for those who deal with serious sexual offences. However, the BSB is developing a special interest in the question of what regulatory intervention is necessary in respect of advocates in the Youth Courts. This follows on from the Carlile Report which recommended accreditation, for those who practise in those courts. The Institute for Criminal Policy Research has been commissioned to do independent research in order better to identify what standards are needed for practice in the Youth Courts.

Other important matters push to the top of the agenda. The de-regulation of education is advancing. The Bar Professional Training Course will be replaced by courses which will need to be devised by providers to fulfil the Professional Statement which is now being finalised. Chambers will have much more control again about how they deliver education to young barristers in pupillage. “We don’t want to get in the way of legitimate change, if provided with more imagination and less burdensome cost”; “it can’t be a free for all where the reputation of the Bar is at stake”. He wants to see the cost reduced for students so if they get to the point of realising that they are not going to be successful at the Bar (although “being trained as a barrister must be a very good intellectual training to have anyway”) then they can go off and do other things without such a burden of debt. He is likely to find sympathy here with the other new regulator, Sir Mike Pitt, the Chair of the Legal Services Board whom Sir Andrew has found to be “approachable and engaging” and, like most engineers, practical.

One of Sir Andrew’s first tasks was to attend the Global Law Summit, where members of the BSB board took part. He saw it as “a good opportunity to remember Magna Carta” and was pleased that something like 90 ministers of justice from around the world attended. “It must be good and empowering” for them “to gather together in support of the rule of law, to know how many people around the world struggle with those issues. It is lonely to be on the interface between politics and the law”.

Although the job of Chair is technically a 2.5 to 3 days a week job, “I have to think about it all the time”, so it is basically full time. Sir Andrew finds it to be a “great privilege and honour” to be there. “The objective is to have a really good effective regulatory body which can be trusted and respected. It is all about allowing innovation, getting out of the way, while protecting some of the core ingredients of what the profession is and how we do justice in this country.” One gets the distinct impression that Sir Andrew Burns is going to enjoy doing this job. 

Contributor David Wurtzel
Counsel Editorial Board Member

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.