I accept I may be biased but to my mind one of the hallmarks of a top judge or barrister is the alacrity with which they accept an invitation to address the Young Bar Conference. In 2013 we were fortunate enough to have the benefit of Sir Alan Moses’ mordant and trenchant analysis of the state we’re in with his thoughtful reflections on the necessity of joy in advocacy and I knew when compiling a list of possible speakers for this year that I would struggle to match such a coup. My pleasure therefore can easily be imagined when almost immediately Lord Judge responded to an importuning email indicating that he would be very happy to speak on 18 October. I can only guess that I caught him in a buoyant moment with spring awakening and thoughts of what he might actually say to serried ranks of anxious young barristers were far off.
Justice in Jeopardy has been the theme of the year for the Young Barristers’ Committee and for the conference itself. I was conscious that something rather more commercial sounding or neutrally complimentary about the skills of barristers might have been preferred, but if nothing else 2014 seems to have been the year of telling it like it is. While oligarchs have been falling over themselves to litigate in the Rolls Building and divorces between foreign nationals have been fought expensively in our courts, the paper covering the cracks in the criminal justice system is no longer concealing that there are now more cracks than there is wall.
Lord Judge and I discussed what message he ought to convey to the Young Bar and I ventured to suggest that reflections on his vast experience of the justice system both at the Bar and on the Bench would enable those in the audience to share, albeit briefly, in the benefit of his long view. I also implored him to try to end on a positive note which, not surprisingly, drew a rueful smile. It will surprise nobody who has worked alongside or appeared in front of him to learn that he more than came up trumps.
A sizeable number of delegates at the Young Bar Conference are Bar students and those embarking on the ever more formidable and fraught road to pupillage. It will have been balm to them to hear that even a judge as great as our recently retired Lord Chief Justice was once what he called a “chambers reject”.
Furthermore tales of family and friends enjoining him not to risk his future with a career at the Bar will ring true with many readers old and young. Recollections of a mixed common law practice with which all young barristers started their careers in the 1960s were peppered with reminiscences of appearing in contested divorce cases. Then suddenly the Divorce Reform Act 1969 brought to an end an entire area of practice. The point of course was that doors close but new opportunities arise, in Lord Judge’s words: “For those in the publicly funded Bar, hang on. Wheels turn. Things change.” That of course was not delivered as a platitude but in frank acknowledgement of the genuine and profound difficulties that face junior barristers looking to make a living from legal aid. Referral fees, or “bribes” as Lord Judge correctly called them, an actual prospect of fusion and the possibility of the Inns of Court, he of course being Treasurer of Middle Temple, providing financial assistance to junior barristers in practice were all topics he touched upon for reflection and for action.
The morning sessions that followed considered “A walk through a Public Access case” organised by the Access to the Bar Committee; “Knotty problems in mediations” organised by the Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee; and “Vulnerable witness training” organised by the Advocacy Training Council. I attended the latter session, the highlight of which was HHJ Lynch QC vividly setting out the shortness of shrift extended to advocates rash enough to appear before her without a full knowledge of The Advocates’ Gateway website and its user friendly toolkits. Nothing less than a sea change in the handling of child and vulnerable witnesses will ensure that the Bar’s reputation for advocacy will continue to enjoy the public’s confidence. Most importantly the point was made that these resources and this training is not for the exclusive use of criminal and family practitioners.
A mid-morning plenary session that, to my mind at least, was directed at one of the most pressing concerns of the modern Bar was a session on “Wellbeing at the Bar” organised by the Equality and Diversity Committee. A very important survey is currently available on the Bar Council website that enables practitioners to provide concrete responses as to how practice affects mood and wellbeing which will enable a more structured and focused approach to supporting barristers than has hitherto been provided by the enviable collegiality of the Bar.
We were then fortunate enough to hear from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Alison Saunders, herself of course a barrister and the first DPP to be appointed from within the CPS. She affirmed the CPS’s commitment to the use of the Bar and in particular the development and encouragement of young barristers in prosecution practice. We were assured that accessing the training and the resources the CPS provides and intends to provide will ensure that no barrister in the audience would ever prompt reference to the rather Edwardian sounding “Errant Counsel Guidance”.
Afternoon sessions then focused on ethics in practice with this the first year that professional ethics are dictated and interpreted by the BSB Handbook rather than the “old” Code of Conduct. There was some discussion as to the difference and similarities and any likely changes of approach. Reference was made to the most tried and tested rule namely the “Blush Test” and whether action or inaction taken could confidently be justified in the Court of Appeal. The importance of engagement with the regulator and one of the Bar Council’s most essential resources namely the Ethics Hotline were also emphasised. Finally there was an open forum session moderated by Daniel Sternberg, Chairman-Elect of the Young Barristers’ Committee, and benefiting from the views of Susan Jacklin QC, chair of the FLBA, HH Geoffrey Rivlin QC who is heading up the Bar Council’s Criminal Justice Reform Group and Charles Cory-Wright QC, the 2012 chair of PIBA. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who spoke on the day, who attended as delegates, who sponsored the conference and those from the Bar Council who arranged the conference itself.