A letter to the Lord Chancellor; a report on the national meeting of the criminal Bar; progress of the BSB’s QASA; and modernising chambers’ business structures.
This has not been a quiet summer. The Government has been given much to think about. Whatever the cause, and accepting that the events may have been unusual, what is clear is that the justice system has been struggling to cope. Often we have warned the Government about the current problems of under funding; let us hope that they now see that our observations are not just self-interest.
Further cuts can only exacerbate these problems. It is one thing to be resolute in the face of lawbreaking, it is yet another to ignore the consequences of plans which weaken the system as a whole. The rioters took the law into their own hands, and thereby tried to subvert the rule of law. What helps to maintain and strengthen the rule of law is a strong, independent Bar whose contribution to the administration of justice the Government should recognise and not undermine in the search for public expenditure cuts. It is not too late for the Government to reconsider its recent proposals: there is virtue in recognising when you may be making a mistake.
Nor was it a quiet summer at the Bar Council. A constant stream of issues had to be dealt with: responses to the funding orders in legal aid, preparation for the next round of the Legal Aid Bill, investigating the status of referral fees under the new Bribery Act; and consultations from the BSB on lifting restrictions on taking publicly-funded work in the public access scheme and the burden of proof in disciplinary hearings, to name but a few.
As many know, on 26 July, a national meeting of the criminal Bar was organised by the Bar Council and the CBA, the Attorney General attended the meeting as Leader of the Bar. Approximately 300 practitioners assembled at the Royal College of Surgeons and a further 200 or so gathered at 15 different video-linked locations around the country. A national meeting on family legal aid, organised by the FLBA and supported by the Bar Council, will take place on 17 September.
The Attorney General witnessed the profession’s anger. He spoke for the Government at the meeting, but he also undertook to take back the views that were expressed. What he heard is that pupillage opportunities in publicly-funded work are simply drying up. It is not unusual for prospective pupils to embark on their search with accumulated student debt of £50-60,000. With the inherent uncertainty of practice as a self-employed barrister, especially in the early years, and the dearth of available pupillages, the prospect of discharging this level of indebtedness is beginning to discourage all but the most wealthy. There is a real risk that the Bar will return to becoming a professional enclave for the better off and this will put paid to the Government’s efforts to promote greater social mobility in the professions, efforts which the Bar has strongly supported.
The publicly-funded Bar is facing the biggest challenge to its existence. In addition to the recruitment crisis, experienced and talented individuals are leaking away from the profession. The adverse consequences to social mobility will also threaten the composition of the judiciary of the future, another issue which the Government claims to hold dear. Moreover, overseas perceptions about the quality of advocacy at the Bar and the efficiency of the administration of justice in this country will suffer and thereby jeopardise the Bar’s standing and work in international dispute resolution in London. Since the meeting I have written to Ken Clarke to press our concerns about the damaging long term effects of the Bill. Extracts from that letter can be found in the news section and the letter is on the website. I will be meeting him in September in order to reinforce these points.
The BSB’s Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) progresses. A meeting for the Bar Council and Circuit Leaders to quiz the BSB on the scheme was held in July and this provided some useful feedback to the BSB. Some outstanding issues remain. As the scheme progresses towards roll-out, the BSB will organise road shows to answer questions from the profession. We also hope that the Inns will take the opportunity to provide support and training to practitioners who will be working their way through the system. The Bar Council is determined to ensure that it is a scheme which recognises and encourages high quality advocacy. We will continue to press for amendments to achieve that aim.
Building for the future: Some insights from chambers
Also in July, we held a meeting for clerks and practice managers to discuss examples of steps that have been taken to modernise chambers business structures and share ideas on what has worked. The panellists were chambers’ directors and business development managers from Manchester, Birmingham, and Cardiff. They spoke of experience in a wide range of practice areas in private as well as publicly funded work. The event was a great success, with standing room only, and so we are planning to run similar sessions on circuit. There is a real appetite for chambers’ executives to share their experiences. The seminar was recorded and will be available on the Bar Council website.
Peter Lodder QC, Bar Chairman