To some at the Bar, the Benchers of their Inn are the elderly white men who sat at the high table when as a student one was eating one’s dinners. To more recent members, they are elderly white men (and a few women) who judge moots and help with advocacy training. To those on their way up the career ladder, being benched is an enviable mark, a distinction - and for some, nothing less than they deserve.

Selection method

The Benchers are, of course, the historic governing body of each Inn, called Parliament in Inner and Middle Temples, Pension in Gray’s Inn and Council in Lincoln’s Inn. They are chosen by existing Benchers, by a varying method. Middle Temple has a talent-spotting bench selection committee which, three times a year, puts forward a list of candidates from whom six will be elected. The criteria are distinction in the profession (the list of QCs is the obvious pool) and service to the Inn. Whatever has happened in the past, they must commit themselves to serve in the future—all duly sign up to this, although it is an unenforceable undertaking, often honoured in the breach. High Court judges are elected automatically if they have not been already; a few members of Hall are chosen on the basis of service. A debate is held at Parliament (the convention is that only complimentary things are said about the candidate, so the task is to pick one’s way through the mass of superlatives). Voting is done there and then although Benchers may send in a postal ballot ahead of time.
In Inner Temple, candidates can put themselves forward. Again, service to the Inn is of importance. The Sub Treasurer, Patrick Maddams, describes the process as “very modern and democratic” with a job specification of 13 duties including promotion and representation of the Inn among its members and the wider legal community. Elections are held twice a year; details of the proposed candidates are posted on the website and Benchers vote online.

At Gray’s, the Bencher electorate are given details of each candidate’s career and work done for the Inn, a copy photograph, and a short statement as to “why”. The aim is annually to appoint 60% of those granted silk and two each in the categories of junior and employed barristers.

Lincoln’s is more proactive, as outlined by their Under Treasurer, David Hills: “Every member over 20 years’ call may be elected. They are sent a form asking if they’d be interested. If they are, they must submit a record of their practices and work they’ve done for the Inn or the Bar Council.” The Advisory Benchers Committee also proposes two members of Hall for each vacancy. Others may be put forward if nominated by five members of Hall or by the Treasurer. Council meets to debate the candidate and a record of that debate is sent to all Benchers, who vote by postal ballot.

Each Inn has its own tradition for installing the successful candidates. Inner has none (“we just put them to work,” says the Sub Treasurer); Lincoln’s drags them to the High Table; Middle invites them to address Hall after dinner—a five-minute account of their life, thus justifying their election.

Honorary and royal Benchers

There are also honorary Benchers: actors (Sir Ian McKellan at Inner, Mark Rylance at Middle); journalists (Joshua Rozenberg at Gray’s, Anna Ford at Middle), great men (Nelson Mandela at Lincoln’s) and politicians (David Cameron at Middle, ground-breakingly the only politician who had not yet been in Government to be chosen). There is also a royal Bencher or two (the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne at Inner, the Duke of Kent at Lincoln’s, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Gloucester at Gray’s). Middle has no British royal Bencher following the death of the Queen Mother, but the Queen of Denmark is a member.

Benchers at work

What do they do? Education and training come top of the list: taking part in their advocacy training programmes for students, pupils and new practitioners; judging moots; and meeting the students. Most importantly, the Benchers make up the bulk of the committees who run the Inns—estates, education, library, finance, catering, the church, and the like. Chairmen have a particularly busy time as they deal most directly with the respective staff of the Inn, which has been likened to the relationship between ministers and civil servants. Committee work has also in this day and age included responding to consultation papers or questionnaires, eg Neuberger and Wood, or having to reply (generally to the Bar Standards Board) that it is not something which concerns an Inn.

Ian Garwood, Director of Estates at Middle Temple, explains that as the Inn’s estate is the main source of revenue, the estates committee has considerable responsibility in dealing with complex issues such as setting rent levels, deciding who gets the tenancy of vacant rooms or flats, forward planning and considering whether property outside the Inn should be bought or sold. Like everything else a Bencher does, it is performed pro bono.

“Democratic osmosis”

The Inns are not a civic society and transparency is no more present amongst the Benchers than elsewhere. In the recent book on Inner Temple, A community of communities, the Treasurer, Lord Justice May, explains that decisions at all levels are taken “by a process of reasoned consensus and are rarely confrontational. There is a constitutional provision of voting but a formal vote is rarely taken. In the result, the Inn is governed in large measure harmoniously by a process of democratic osmosis.” Minutes of committees are distributed to members but the results of proceedings are not published. Neither is the voting for Bencher candidates or what was said about them. Who chooses the Master Treasurer and Master Reader and by what criteria is generally unknown. There is no discernible movement to do things in any way differently from the way they have always been done.

Why be a Bencher?

Apart from the kudos, why do people want to be Benchers? Owen Davies QC, says that it is about giving back—the responsibility to teach and guide younger members of the Inn. Caroline Willbourne of Inner Temple says, “it’s the best club in the world, and I don’t do clubs”. It does not, however, come cheap: Gray’s and Inner require a one-off payment of £1,000; Lincoln’s and Middle Temple ask for £1,500. And then there are the dinners: the Benchers may get a better meal, but they correspondingly pay more for it.

As in any organisation, there are only so many members who are genuinely interested. Those who achieve election and then disappear have missed what the others discover: how to give back to the Inn, and the pleasure of life on the other side of the green baize door.

Catherine Baksi is a reporter for the Law Society Gazette, specialising in the Bar