Warmest congratulations to Barbara Mills KC, Head of Chambers at 4 Paper Buildings (4PB), who has been elected Vice Chair of the Bar for 2024. She will become the first specialist family practitioner in 35 years, and the first Black woman, to take up the role. I very much look forward to working with Barbara and know that she and the current Vice Chair Sam Townend KC will make a great team when they take the helm in January.

Visiting the North Eastern Circuit

Sam and I had an enjoyable and useful trip to the North Eastern Circuit. It is good to see many thriving chambers in Newcastle and Leeds, but we occasionally wondered why chambers where everyone is saying they have more than enough work don’t take on an extra pupil or two.

Crown Court robing room conversations about s 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 suggest an emerging consensus that it is a good idea but is being pushed too far. The measures are appropriate for child witnesses and cases of serious vulnerability or intimidation but can be counterproductive if overused because the impact of recorded evidence is never likely to be as compelling as a complainant giving evidence directly to jurors.

At Leeds Crown Court there are usually 13 courts, including one Plea and Trial Preparation Hearing (PTPH) court and one sentencing court. Since the introduction of Common Platform they have had to use two courts for sentencing and two for PTPHs because Common Platform slows things down so much. So they are two courts down, out of 13. Even if these problems can in time be overcome by tweaks to the system and better user familiarity, it strongly suggests that the system is far from ready for a wider roll-out.

Reacting to rule of law issues

The Bar Council lobbied hard on the silly sunset clause contained in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, and it is good to see that the government has now dropped it. The Bill is still far from perfect, but it is much improved. Meanwhile amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill are making it worse rather than better from a rule of law point of view (which is quite an achievement). We will continue to focus our lobbying efforts on access to justice, the rule of law and the fundamental principles forming the bedrock of the UK’s constitutional settlement.

Cab rank and Post Office

There has been widespread support from across the Bar in response to efforts to promote the importance of both the cab rank rule and the independence of barristers from their clients. There are good articles on the topic by Michael Harwood in this issue of Counsel and by Michael Beloff KC in the Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association (Vol 33, No 1, April 2023).

The ongoing enquiries into the Post Office Horizon scandal have highlighted the critical importance of the independence of lawyers. It is often easier for external lawyers to be independent of their client than internal lawyers, but it is just as important that in-house lawyers are independent. This is most acutely the case when the lawyer’s employer can bring prosecutions. The scandal will surely bring into question the appropriateness of private prosecutions brought by corporate bodies.

Evidence in sexual offences prosecutions

The Law Commission has announced a review of the law, guidance and practice relating to the trial process in prosecutions of sexual offences. The consultation paper is thoughtful, far-reaching and sometimes rather startling in terms of the possible changes suggested to our systems for Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) trials. The consultation needs careful consideration, and the Bar Council will respond in due course. All those interested in RASSO work should take a look.

Access to legal aid

The government has published its response to the legal aid means test review and we have welcomed the expansion of eligibility. Although the Ministry of Justice has declared an end to the ‘innocence tax’, the plans show that those who pay privately for their defence and are found not guilty will not be reimbursed, so we have asked the government to look again at these proposals.

The Bar Council has also expressed concern at the slow pace of change. The reforms will take up to two years to be implemented. In the interim, thresholds have not been increased and we are pleased to see a commitment to review them. We will continue to press for future increases to automatically keep pace with inflation and will urge the government to take further steps to improve legal aid availability.