One of the greatest challenges facing the Bar Council is to maintain the profession’s cohesion, notwithstanding the continued success and development of the commercially funded Bar and the contrasting struggles of the publicly funded Bar. The latter has faced a reduction in the volume of cases available and a reduction in funding for that work.
We are one Bar. I am determined that that principle should not be eroded, even though certain sections of the profession face difficulties greater than at any other time.
Anybody with the slightest interest in maintaining the principle of access to justice for the weakest and most vulnerable, and in maintaining high standards in the administration of justice, must be concerned by the nature and consequences of the changes being forced through. We recognise the financial constraints on public spending. It is, however, at least debatable whether the cuts being made are likely to achieve any real or appreciable savings.
The belief that government is unwilling to listen or respond to responsible arguments is destroying morale and confidence in the future. Our arguments are good ones, we must continue to be confident and make them.
We must worry that it may be difficult to maintain the highest standards of skill and integrity in the environment that is currently developing. A combination of inadequate funding and ill-considered regulation threatens to destroy the body those involved claim to promote and protect. It is essential that we ensure that the changes imposed upon the Bar are guaranteed to improve standards. Regulation for regulation’s sake will only alienate the profession and will not protect the public.
It is not only the perceptions of government that must be assessed and, if mistaken, changed. I have to acknowledge that a significant proportion of the profession believe that the Bar Council does nothing, other than take a Practising Certificate Fee and disseminate regulatory requirements. As anyone who has ever served on the Council can attest, that picture is genuinely untrue and unfair. The real problem is a failure to communicate to the subscribers what is actually done by the Council. Members of the Council do a large amount of work: some of them, vast amounts of work for the benefit of the profession and the public, not out of self-interest. That breakdown in communication has to be put right. I want the representative and elected members of the Council to ensure that what actually happens is passed out to practitioners and, in return, the views of the profession are clearly made known to the Council.
That process is two-way. We need to know what you think and want to say. I have said that “the door is always open” - it is and will remain so. My e-mail address is MMcGowan@BarCouncil.org.uk: please use it. I am not inviting abuse, though some of it is inspired in its creativity, but I am happy to listen to criticism and would be delighted to receive constructive suggestions.
It is equally important to remember that the staff of the Bar Council work hard on behalf of the profession and are willing to help and advise whenever possible. With their help I hope to circulate information about the problems and possible successes over the year.
I have set out what I believe to be the important features of the year ahead in the speech I made on December 10 2012; it’s on the website, please read it.
I am determined that the Bar Council and the profession should become more pro-active. We have traditionally reacted to ideas proposed by the Ministry of Justice or the Legal Services Board. The changes we face should be considered before implementation: in recent years we have been faced by changes which are nominally considered after implementation, with the obvious failings in the logic of that method. As a profession of articulate, intelligent advocates, why can we not propose changes if required? Why can we not design or re-design our relationship with government and our regulators? The Lord Chancellor has announced a review of legal aid - we will contribute if appropriate. But as practitioners involved in the administration of the system, with all its strengths and weaknesses, are we not well placed to carry out a review of the scheme ourselves and make recommendations? We are and we will.
I have been pleased, and relieved, by the willingness of practitioners I have met to get involved. We need to be better organised and to try and have a real say in what happens to the future of the profession. We are not motivated purely out of self-interest: we do vast amounts of work pro bono in the public interest, whether for FRU, the Pro Bono Unit, pursuing applications for leave in the Court of Appeal or teaching advocacy. That being said, an interest in seeing that a vital part of a respected profession is properly remunerated and regulated is not an unreasonable one.