From Hampshire to Cornwall

Nigel Lickley QC, Leader of the Western Circuit, explains the role of the circuit within the modern Bar.

An eminent Silk in London asked me recently at a dinner in Middle Temple “What is the value of the circuits?


I answered by saying that for generations the circuits have provided a bond between barristers that in its own way has regulated standards and ethics, and provided a training ground for the young practitioners. Those young practitioners go on to become barristers and Silks of high regard and judges of the finest calibre.

I added that long before anyone thought it necessary to have a Code of Conduct or a scheme to regulate standards of advocacy the circuits were doing just that - in their own ‘light touch’ way. First, via pupil masters who remain a source of advice and guidance long after pupillage has ended; second, through Heads of Chambers providing a link to local judges; and finally, by means of the circuit structure – advice given to the younger members in robing rooms. The circuits have produced great advocates and great judges who, it can justly be said, became great judges because of the independence of thought and judgment their life at the Bar taught them.

The fine traditions are one thing, I added, but the circuit system is as relevant if not more so today than it was in the past.

In 1911 J Alderson Foote QC wrote Pie Powder – “being dust from the law courts, collected and recollected on the Western circuit, by a circuit tramp”. It is a fine depiction of circuit life in the late 19th century. The author laments what he considered may lead to the death of the circuit namely, the introduction of the Summary Judgment procedure to weed out hopeless civil actions that had occupied courts and the Bar for generations and provided a good income for some. He was not to know of the transformation the Bar would go through in the later stages of the 20th century. As ever the Bar adapted and changed, becoming better as it did.

The world depicted by Foote is almost unrecognizable from that which we enjoy today. The circuit, instead of moving from city to city following the judges, has based itself in those very cities. The circuit sets have thrived. That is a reflection, not only of the local need for quality legal services across every discipline, but also of the very high standards provided by the Bar. There are real centres of excellence in our cities. There are practitioners who can rightly be described as ‘beacons’ - standing out as the very best our profession has to offer. Cuts to public funding however threaten that provision of legal services.

The varied services provided by the Bar are matched by the Courts Service bringing the courts to the circuits. The Administrative Court opened recently in Bristol following success in other regional centres. The Court will sit in the newly opened Civil Court building. This will ensure the wide jurisdiction of the court is provided to litigants across our region without the need to travel to London or elsewhere. This follows the successful move of the Chancery Division along similar lines some years ago.

Today the circuits do more than ever. We train and educate. The Western Circuit has been providing education since 1995. To date, 185 courses have been held covering Pupil Advocacy, new practitioner and established practitioner programmes. We have recently held joint serious sexual offence courses with the CPS. In February 2013 we were the first circuit to use the CPS online training programme as a pilot scheme. A committee made up of Silks and juniors make all of this possible. They ensure that the training is of the highest quality. Pastoral care is provided when problems arise, be it personal or chambers wide. Private meetings are necessary to discuss personal issues and sometimes wider issues arise. Failing sets need help to survive.

The Western Circuit is about to introduce a funded pupillage scheme to help smaller sets who cannot afford to fund a pupillage, and we respond to the never ending flood of consultations that affect our members. Senior practitioners gave up their time to help the CPS by acting as Circuit representatives when applications to the advocate panels were assessed. I was part of the appeals panel. Others give time to assist in mock trials at schools.

One of the joys of being a Circuit Leader is the close working relationship that develops with the other circuit leaders. The group of six is rightly regarded as a powerful influence on all matters affecting the Bar. We meet regularly, we discuss important issues with those of influence and the email traffic is constant, varied and entertaining at times.

The Circuit Leaders and the Circuit representatives – one Silk and one junior –  are important and vocal members of the Bar Council. Each circuit is represented on the other Specialist Bar Committees. This degree of representation means that the whole Bar is heard at every level of debate.

The unity we share is important. Unity of purpose guides us in what we do and how we respond to that which confronts us.

The greatest threat and the one issue that we remain focused on is the suggested introduction of price competitive contracting in publicly funded work, and with it OCOF (one case one fee). If introduced in the form envisaged, or anything like it, the provision of criminal representation and advice that has lasted for generations will change forever. Those changes will not be in the public interest. Standards will fall as price dictates the advocate rather than the case and its complexity. The independent, fearless advocate prosecuting one day defending the next, so popular in our culture and for good reason, will gradually become a thing of the past.

As we begin 2013 there are many changes and challenges ahead across all work areas. The timetable for the introduction of QASA has been announced. Quality assurance is to be encouraged where it maintains high standards and is in the public interest. Despite our very well argued responses to the fourth consultation on matters of principle, our concerns were not heeded. We are unable to endorse a system which includes plea only/non-trial advocates, whom we do not think are in the public interest. In addition, the inclusion of QCs, all of whom, since 2006, have been successful in the very vigorous QC competitions are to be assessed according to the same criteria as juniors at level 4. There is no pressing need, at this early stage during the trial period of two years, for Silks to be included. A five-year exemption for those appointed since 2010 seems illogical. We will continue to press for change.

Despite the challenges I am confident that the independent Bar, supported by the thriving circuits, will survive. It is important that we do for the future of our profession.

The circuits are proud of their past. The values instilled in all of us are worth passing on to the new generation who in turn will one day lead the Bar. What ever lies ahead cannot replace the core principles that we practice every day. We will always be barristers, independent and valued.

I end with a quote from another great Western Circuiteer, Sir Neil Butterfield, who, having recently retired from the High Court, addressed the circuit in Exeter at Grand night:

“The circuit is like the sea. It never ends. We are ships on that sea. Some shine brighter than others and in time their lights dim, but the circuit goes on……”

Nigel Lickley QC 3, Paper Buildings

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