Facing Up to the Future

This year’s Young Bar Conference was as popular as ever. Alexander Learmonth rounds up the highlights.

The Young Bar Conference is the highlight of the Young Barristers’ Committee’s  calendar and so it is fantastic that it remains so popular among barristers – and pupils – up to ten years’ Call. Thanks to the support of Circuits, many of which funded delegates’ costs, more than 200 barristers, pupils and Bar Vocational Course students attended the 2009 conference – held on Saturday, 3 October at London’s Hotel Russell – from all corners of the country: Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol. And given sponsorship from commercial sponsors and several Specialist Bar Associations, delegates enjoyed 5 hours of accredited CPD, coffee, lunch and tea – all for £40.


In the 2009 Young Bar Magazine, published on the day of the conference, I set out six major changes facing the young Bar. Of those six, only one is unequivocally positive: Derek Wood QC’s review of pupillage, which the YBC is confident will yield improvements for pupils. The various impending cuts in legal aid, with which readers of Counsel are all too familiar, are obviously bad news.

It was with an eye to the other recent changes – the new super-regulators (the Legal Services Board (“LSB”) and the Office for Legal Complaints (“OLC”)), the tide of deregulation and the wave of new forms of practice-model that the plenary sessions were constructed. Our keynote speaker was Baroness Ruth Deech, Chair of the Bar Standards Board (“BSB”). She made it very clear that the Bar now has a regulator that really understands the profession; a regulator prepared to make changes necessary to help the Bar compete, but not to throw away traditions that have served it well for 500 years without good, evidence-based, reasons.

Covering all areas

We tried to ensure there was something for everyone at this year’s conference: there were two sessions with a choice of four workshops each, covering all practice areas. Speakers from the Bar Council’s Professional Practice Committee gave sessions on professional ethics for both criminal and civil, family and employed practitioners, reminding us that there are often no right answers. The summary assessment of costs led by District Judge Phillips from Cardiff was a popular option, as was the workshop on extradition presented by Edward Fitzgerald CBE QC, Peter Binning and Alison Riley. Peter Haynes QC, Iain Morley QC and Paul Troop spoke impressively on international human rights tribunals and there were indispensable introductions to the work of the Court of Protection and the Coroner’s Court, both given by experts in those fields David Rees, Barbara Rich and Aswini Weereratne for the former, and Richard Matthews in the latter.

For those that wanted to pursue further the issues raised in Lady Deech’s address, a workshop led by Robin Tolson QC presented the “Wacky Races”, talking us through a variety of vehicles for practice, ranging from the wonderful to the plain weird. Tom Little, a former chairman of the YBC, took a more conservative approach, warning us that once we drove off the track, it was a slippery slope to fusion.

Advocacy tips

One of the conference’s highlights was the entertaining and rivetingly informative Advocacy Masterclass, led by the legendary Michael Beloff QC and flanked by distinguished former judges Sir Oliver Popplewell and Sir Charles Gray. After smuggling across numerous excellent tips on dealing with difficult judges, disguised amongst a barrage of witty anecdote, two of the three told the conference that they would not have joined a fused profession. Indeed, Jonathan Sumption QC had said the same thing to the South Eastern Circuit less than a week earlier. New forms of practice-model must therefore be considered carefully before they are adopted as solutions to the Bar’s problems. That’s why the BSB was right to risk criticism in the legal press by urging caution on the LSB in relation to Alternative Business Structures.

Funding and fee issues

Preserving the Bar’s appeal to talented students is the reason the YBC supports an increased minimum funding level for pupillages. Having paid for their education, it is essential that pupils are given a living wage – even if that means the number of pupillages decreases slightly. After all, as the Chairman of the Bar Desmond Browne QC pointed out in the Open Forum, a pupillage with no tenancy or employment at the end of it is little use. So, too, the YBC has been fighting against exploitation of the young Bar by chambers in the fields of fast track trial fees, unwritten CFAs and the magistrates’ court protocol. Setting newly qualified members of chambers to work at cut-price rates can be justified where it is to give them experience and access to solicitors they would not otherwise get, but where this is motivated by a desire to benefit others in chambers, barristers and clerks must work together on stamping these unfair practices out. We hope that the use of so-called third and fourth six-month “pupillages” (not in fact pupillages at all) will be carefully looked at, and chambers that need to use the services of young barristers will do so on a more satisfactory footing.

The Bar must continue to welcome and support new entrants to the Bar. That means keeping the current system of banding for the practising certificate fee (“PCF”). On the very morning of the Young Bar Conference, the YBC was heartened to see the Bar Council making its approval of the current system clear. It decided that the levies imposed on the Bar Council by the LSB and the OLC should be recovered from barristers as part of the usual fee, and in proportion to the existing bands. This is good news for newly qualified barristers, who are labouring under unprecedented levels of student debt, finding it increasingly difficult to obtain pupillage and struggling to find work. They would otherwise have faced a doubling in their PCF.

At a time of rapid change for the Bar as a whole, therefore, we must focus on unity if we are to embrace the challenges of the future. The Young Bar Conference provides an annual forum for young practitioners to work towards these goals.

Alexander Learmonth is the Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee

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