Contrary to another popular misunderstanding, barristers come from all walks of life. In recent years, social mobility has become an increasing challenge throughout society, but the Inns of Court provide over £5million in scholarships every year, and sets of chambers provide millions more. In addition, I would like to see a debate on whether more sets of chambers should recruit their pupils from students before they commit to pay the fees for the Bar Professional Training Course. That might help improve access to the Bar for those from less well-off backgrounds.
The Bar Council represents the Bar as a whole, whether employed or self-employed or in publicly or privately-funded work. It provides services, such as the ethics hotline, which benefi t all barristers. It is active in developing business opportunities for barristers abroad and in promoting the Rule of Law and the highest professional standards everywhere we can. I want to make the Bar Council a more efficient and effective organisation. We need a businesslike approach to making the most of our resources and planning for the future.
For example, we are greatly reducing operating costs by giving up nearly half of our office space. Our new Chief Executive, Stephen Crowne, is working hard on ensuring that the structure and practices of our organisation best support the work we do. It is impressive that barristers are prepared to give up so much time freely for the benefit of the justice system and of individual litigants. A huge number do pro bono work, whether through the Bar Pro Bono Unit, the Free Representation Unit, advice centres or elsewhere. This month the Chancery Bar Association’s new scheme will start to provide assistance to litigants in person in the Chancery Division. We can be proud as a profession that a sense of social responsibility runs through everything we do.
"What is needed is to abolish the Legal Services Board as currently constituted"
Barristers also give up a huge amount of time to help with the running of the profession and its institutions: not only the Bar Council, but Specialist Bar Associations, the Circuits, the Inns of Court, the Bar Standards Board, the Advocacy Training Council and other bodies. I am really looking forward to working with all of these bodies in 2014. We have had three Acts of Parliament since 1990 dealing with the regulation of the legal profession. But the Lord Chancellor himself seems to accept that Parliament has still not got it right. He has commissioned a consultation. The answer is clear. What is needed is to abolish the Legal Services Board as currently constituted.
This month sees the commencement of the Bar Standards Board’s new Handbook. We will all have to familiarise ourselves with, and give eff ect to, the rules in the new Handbook. The Jeffrey Review of the provision of advocacy services in criminal cases represents an opportunity to strengthen the criminal justice system. I hope that its report will recognise the importance of the Bar in that system, and that it will propose measures which could lead to real improvements, including measures to ensure that an individual accused of a crime has an eff ective and informed choice of the advocate who is to represent him.
I recognise the economic climate. I recognise also that, as a result of lobbying by the profession, the Government has made some changes to its proposals, especially in revising its proposals as to choice of solicitor and in making modest adjustments to its proposed cuts to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme.
Nevertheless, the actual and proposed reductions in both the scope of legal aid and the rates paid for legal aid represent a real threat to our justice system. The fees paid to advocates for conducting criminal cases in the Crown Court have been reduced by 27% in the last 6 years. Yet we now face the prospect of still further cuts, including a 30%reduction in the fees paid for the most difficult cases, which came into effect last month. And the reductions currently being implemented in fees in some civil cases are more than 50%.
If we are to continue to have an eff ective system for dealing with serious criminal cases, then we cannot create such huge incentives for people to give up, or not to engage in the first place in, criminal advocacy. The result will be longer trials, and more successful appeals, adding to costs rather than saving money and making the system less effective either at convicting the guilty or ensuring that those wrongly accused go free. Our duty is to speak out against these changes, clearly and consistently.
As I have said, our profession has a long history. We have lived through the era of Oliver Cromwell, and that of Judge Jeffreys. We will be here for a long time to come.
Nicholas Lavender QC, Chairman of the Bar