Interview: Amanda Pinto QC

If there’s one thing that defines what the new Chair of the Bar wants to achieve, it’s removing barriers. Amanda Pinto QC talks to Kate Brunner QC about access to the profession, equitable briefing and why the profile of senior Bar politics has to change

The Secret Barrister laid down the gauntlet when interviewing Richard Atkins QC a year ago for this magazine – to avoid ‘striking a tone somewhere on the spectrum between flattery and hagiography’ in Counsel’s annual New Year interview with the incoming Chair. And so, a warm welcome to our new leader, the brilliant and indefatigable Amanda Pinto QC.

After 13 years in silk focusing on international financial crime and cross-border fraud, the task of representing the whole Bar does not faze her: ‘It is incredibly important to represent everybody – including the fifth of practitioners who are employed barristers. To become familiar with other areas you have to sit down and do your homework. It doesn’t matter what your area of practice is if you have the wherewithal, the desire to learn about other areas, and are a good advocate. That is the most important thing – to be the best advocate for the Bar regardless of what area of the Bar you come from.’

Amanda is not all about the talking, though. In the words of Elvis, she is clearly all for ‘a little less conversation, a little more action’. Her to-do list is substantial. Some of the items on that list have been carried over: it is hard to imagine any Chair of the Bar in the next decade not having ‘Sort publicly funded fees!!’ and ‘*Deal with fall-out from Brexit’ at the top of the list. Amanda is marginally less cynical about the first, citing the ‘real change of attitude’ which she perceives at the Crown Prosecution Service and in the Ministry of Justice Civil Service as well as in political leadership.

There are, of course, new plans alongside the old problems. If there’s one thing that defines what Amanda wants to achieve, it’s removing barriers. She is obviously passionate about ensuring access to justice in a meaningful way, bemoaning court closures, reduced sitting days and court fees: ‘Access to justice means not just a justice system for those who have got money. It means having courts open, having judges sitting, and getting justice done.’

Chipping away at barriers to the Bar is another focus: ‘A Bar that is representative of the society it serves has got to be a better model than a small group of people who may have very little experience of the norms of those whom they represent. Access to the profession for everyone who is good enough is absolutely in the public interest. Being a barrister is still a job which feels outside many people’s range of possibilities. We should keep on working on changing that.’ Amanda identifies programmes of speaking in schools, and the Inns’ scholarships as being vital ways to open up the profession, as well as the new two-part Bar Training Course.

Once people are in, the next challenge, of course, is to retain them. Amanda takes a holistic approach to keeping barristers who have taken a career break: ‘If your job is really satisfying and you feel valued and people seem as if they are trying to help you, and you then take some time off; and if you are welcomed back and know you are going to have a sustainable career that will develop, you are far more likely to remain.

‘If, on the other hand, you feel as though you are not having a fair run at the kind of work you want to do, if you feel that people who should be supporting you are unimpressed with the fact that you are juggling things, if you are subjected to rudeness by a tribunal or opponent and if you are not paid sufficiently – you are much more likely to think “I won’t go back.” Equitable briefing, judicial bullying, when you are weighing it up, it all goes into the mix.’

I can’t let this go without slipping in a reference to Back to the Bar, the Western Circuit Women’s Forum survey of obstacles, aids and recommendations for parents returning to the Bar (bit.ly/wcwfbacktothebar) which entirely backs up Amanda’s views.

As well as opening access to the Bar, Amanda identifies a need to change the profile of those who represent the Bar. She reminds me that although she is the third woman leader of the Bar in eight years, she is only the fourth in 126 years. After the sound of tinkling glass in 1998 when Heather Hallett QC stepped up, there was an alarming gap before the next woman chair, Maura McGowan QC, arrived in 2013.

The homogenous profile of leaders in various senior positions at the Bar concerns her: ‘Access to the leadership of the profession is so important, as important as getting into the profession. If you can see yourself in people in chambers or in courts, or in Bar politics it becomes possible to see yourself further along the road. Ultimately if you haven’t changed the top then any changes at the bottom are not sustainable: you have to change the attitude at the top.’ She plans to launch a programme to identify future leaders of the Bar, aimed at broadening the pool of people who might lead the profession in the future, and ‘to have more proactive succession planning to bring different people up through the committee, and to look at whether current structures are a barrier to diversity’.

A further focus for Amanda is retaining access by the UK Bar to international work, and protecting the primacy of English law – a thorny issue in these Brexity times. Her four-year stint as Chair of the International Committee has made her acutely aware of the pressures and opportunities in the international legal market.

She says: ‘Historically, English law has been the law of choice, applied more than any other in dispute resolution clauses in international contracts. Legal services make a huge contribution to the economy. In 2017, the latest confirmed figures tell us that legal services made a £26.8 billion contribution to the economy. That doesn’t include spin-off income like hotels and local facilities. We have very skilled barristers and solicitors, and a truly independent judiciary that understands commercial law. There are two very specific concerns we should be worrying about. One is the effect of Brexit, and the other is the rise of international dispute resolution centres around the world. We need to drive ourselves forward to remain in our prime position.’ Amanda sees scope in international work not just for commercial lawyers, but also those in other areas such as family law.

Lots of plans, then. My final question is one that, I suspect, many would want to put to the leader of the Bar: ‘Hasn’t the Bar Council got too expensive? What is the Practising Certificate Fee [PCF] actually for?’ I am slightly ashamed that the first part of Amanda’s response is complete news to me: those regulating our profession take most of that fee. The vast majority of the PCF goes to the Bar Standards Board, not the Bar Council. The Bar Standards Board share has been increasing. What’s left over goes to the Bar Council and can only be used for ‘permitted purposes’, which are limited (by the Legal Services Act 2007) to functions such as maintaining professional standards, and giving support. That makes the Bar Representation Fee (BRF) – the voluntary part of our annual bill – the only source of funds for lots of the things that the Bar Council does, including some pretty important projects.

Back to Amanda, before I move from hagiographer to crusader: ‘The BRF funds lots of activities which we aren’t allowed to fund with our portion of the Practising Certificate Fee, like the Bar Council’s wellbeing work, like research into the impact of criminal and family fees, like some of the work we do to promote social mobility and access to the Bar, and aspects of international business development.’ She considers the Bar Council to be a lean set-up: ‘We have 30 staff, an extraordinary group of really dedicated people, and limited floor-space which we are reducing. We rely on great practitioners giving time for free, about 300 over any given year doing unpaid work for the Bar Council, sitting on committees and panels, and responding to consultations.’

This is a Chair whose all-action approach will keep that skeleton team of staff and cadre of volunteers well occupied over the next year. I suspect that the items on Amanda’s to-do list will be boldly crossed through by the end of her term. She may even sort out fees and Brexit. I will pay a double voluntary Bar Representation Fee if she does.

The homogenous profile of leaders in various senior positions at the Bar concerns her... ‘If you can see yourself in people in Bar politics it becomes possible to see yourself further along the road.’ Equitable briefing, judicial bullying, when you are weighing it up, it all goes into the mix. A further focus is retaining access by the UK Bar to international work, and protecting the primacy of English law – a thorny issue in these Brexity times.

Amanda’s Bar CV: key facts

  • Read Law at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
  • After pupillage with a common law commercial set, a third-six at a criminal law chambers won her over – she enjoyed the daily advocacy, variety and human context it offered.
  • One of two female pupils who were the first tenancy applicants for that set under a democratic chambers vote (rather than the blackball system); a vote which was overturned the following day by some senior members of the all-male chambers in protest. Their pupil-masters and other members of chambers reversed that decision.
  • Established a niche practice as an expert in international financial wrongdoing and cases raising intricate cross-border questions including insider dealing, fraud, money laundering and corruption.
  • Mother of three; while pregnant with her second child, she completed a Diploma in the History of Art at Birkbeck College – but ultimately decided to stay at the Bar.
  • A Recorder (appointed 2004), took silk in 2006 and elected a Bencher (Middle Temple) in 2012 where she is also an ethics and advocacy trainer.
  • Co-author of Corporate Criminal Liability (Sweet & Maxwell), the corporate criminal liability section of Blackstone’s Criminal Practice and the sanctions chapter in Smith Owen and Bodnar on Asset Recovery.
  • Chair of the International Committee of the Bar Council from 2014-18, Director of International Affairs for the Criminal Bar Association, and the UK’s representative on the Council of the International Criminal Bar 2009-17.
  • Vice Chair of the Bar in 2019; and Chair of the Bar for 2020.

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Kate Brunner QC

Kate is Leader of the Western Circuit. She set up the Western Circuit Women’s Forum with other Circuiteers in 2015, to improve the retention and advancement of women on Circuit. Kate is a barrister at Albion Chambers in Bristol, and the 36 Group in London, practising in crime, fraud and regulatory law.