Justice has been in the news regularly over the summer with the government’s ‘stop the boats’ week, the Lucy Letby conviction (and absence from her sentencing) and the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s handling of the Andrew Malkinson case.

I was pleased to be able to make a joint statement with the Law Society criticising Conservative Central Office for circulating a dossier that was clearly intended to denigrate and marginalise immigration solicitor Jacqueline MacKenzie. I hope you had chance to read our statement. Happily, the Lord Chancellor and Law Officers have continued to use moderate and appropriate language when discussing lawyers who, entirely properly, take cases against the government. I hope others in senior positions of responsibility will follow their example. It is absolutely okay to criticise lawyers who behave improperly. It is absolutely not okay to criticise lawyers who are properly fulfilling their professional obligations to promote their clients’ interests. And it is vital to be able to tell the difference.

As we head into party conference season and politicians turn their minds to manifestos, we will take the opportunity to highlight our priorities for the Bar and wider justice system.

Lucy Letby’s case

The Lucy Letby case raises many issues. It is easy to understand the demands that ‘something must be done’ to ensure that convicted criminals are present when they are sentenced. But it is very difficult to see that there is a truly satisfactory and practical way of achieving that, without also providing a stage on which a defendant can show his or her contempt for the process that has convicted them.

There is a suggestion that advice from medical professionals to remove Letby was ignored or overridden by non-medically qualified hospital managers. If true, this is deeply troubling. And I hope it might prompt a more general review of the role of professions and whether we have got quite the right balance between the extremes of untrammelled self-regulation of professions on the one hand, and on the other hand always subjugating professional judgements to non-professional oversight.

The level of professional distrust baked into the current system is such that anyone can be Chair of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) or of the Legal Services Board – just as long as they have never been a practising lawyer.

Andrew Malkinson’s case

The government has just announced an independent inquiry into the circumstances and handling of the Andrew Malkinson case after he was exonerated in July over a rape for which he wrongly spent 17 years in prison. I welcome the announcement by the government. We will follow the developments with interest. The Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk KC, is right when he says: ‘The core function of our justice system is to convict the guilty and ensure the innocent walk free.’ We cannot safely aim for a system that ensures that every guilty person is convicted, but we can and must aim for a system that ensures that innocent people are not convicted.

Barristers must cooperate with BSB investigations

I have not always been happy with the speed at which BSB complaints have been handled and have made that clear. The BSB is working to improve its systems, has called in external experts to carry out an independent review, and the BSB’s annual report records that the BSB closed 119 investigations in the second half of the year compared to 60 in the first half. So things are improving.

But efficient regulatory investigations need our cooperation. It is vitally important for barristers to cooperate with the regulator. And respond promptly to BSB requests. This will benefit all those involved.

Bar Council elections

I first stood in Bar Council elections about 35 years ago in the so-called ‘slate’ of candidates led by Gareth Williams and Anthony Scrivener, who felt the Bar was too stuck in its ways and needed to be more combative in challenging the government to provide adequate levels of legal aid. I made lots of friends, learnt about other practice areas, and had a chance to put something back into the profession.

Can I please encourage you to stand in the next elections. If you’ve tried before and been unsuccessful, it’s worth trying again. Nominations open from 9:00 on 7 September and close at 17:00 on 21 September. There is more information available on the Bar Council website.

Volunteering to represent the profession is the best way to help make the Bar even better than it already is, and to change those parts you think need changing.

See you on 13 September?

I will be speaking in Inner Temple Hall at 18:00 on 13 September, on the Bar of 2043 and challenges we face, and then in conversation with Fiona Rutherford of JUSTICE. Tickets are free and can be booked here.