It has been a very testing time for the Criminal Bar, what do you think differentiates your set from your competitors?
Well we are in the unusual position of having two types of competitors. Historically it has been the big traditional criminal chambers, but over the past ten to twelve years things have changed due to the disciplinary work we have moved into, which is now a substantial area of our work. Our competitors in this field are more civil chambers than criminal and so we already straddle two different types of practice. The advantage to us is that we feel we are already in a better position than traditional criminal chambers to take advantage of the recent changes. We are already well established in non-criminal regulatory referral work. We are not currently contemplating forming LDPs with litigators as we think clients are better served by solicitors dealing with litigation, and our barristers focusing on referral advisory and advocacy work, which we intend to also offer now by direct access. We believe it is a real improvement for clients to have direct access to experienced counsel for advice at the outset of a legal problem, but envisage we will often be referring them on to solicitors for specialist litigation assistance, which we feel will help clients to obtain the best and most efficient legal assistance. Direct access in this form is, we believe, a potentially very useful addition for clients − see a specialist at the beginning to get good advice before instructing solicitors.
A number of sets around the country are trying to move away from being dependent on publicly funded work and further develop privately funded revenue streams, how did this come about for your chambers?
It was about 12 years ago when we were first instructed on General Medical Council (GMC) work, which now extends to most medical regulators. Some of our members also sat as legal assessors on professional disciplinary panels, as it was quasi-criminal work. We saw how publicly funded criminal work was coming under increasing attack over the years, and we decided to concentrate on broadening out the range of work we did beyond that. The recent drastic cuts (trailed long before the banking crisis) are deeply depressing, but we feel we have already made a significant shift away from total reliance upon publicly funded work. We have always had a heavy emphasis towards business crime and that side of our work also led us into private business and financial crime, which has also provided us with a parallel advising stream. There is no quick fix to moving away from publicly funded work, diversification is a long process, but we now have an established footprint upon which we will continue to build. We will never give up publicly funded criminal work however, as it is invaluable to anyone who seeks to excel in the field of advocacy in any court, and also extremely rewarding in non-financial ways.
Your chambers is leaving the Temple in an unprecedented move to the City. What’s prompted this decision?
Primarily the go ahead for direct access at the Criminal Bar which by January this year was coming over the horizon. We actually started looking at premises a year ago within “legal London” but then broadened our search. We were keen to make sure we had premises that had a traditional feel but also a modern quality and so are absolutely delighted to have found two conjoined Queen Anne buildings just off Cannon Street, a location that offers great links with our client base. The premises combines old Queen Anne panelled rooms with some large modern open floors. We will have a state of the art seminar suite, and modern technology throughout, including video conferencing. We are also very much looking forward to owning our own premises.
The face of the Bar is inevitably going to look very different over the next five to ten years as a move such as yours is testimony to. What does the future hold for your chambers?
We’ll keep a traditional chambers structure, taking and recruiting from pupils, remaining a referral business, but also offering direct access, as we believe this best serves clients’ interests. Every member of chambers will have a diverse practice. We will build on our existing areas such as professional discipline, sports discipline, trading standards, financial crime, and corporate crime. We will continue to analyse and offer services consequent upon new legislation such as the Bribery and Corporate Manslaughter Acts, as more compliance issues backed by penal consequences arise. We will strive to give private and company clients a better service and to remain a progressive rather than regressive set of chambers.
We will never though give up on publicly funded crime, however difficult government makes it for conscientious practitioners to survive, but we have over the years diversified into other interesting areas of work, and will continue to do so.
Mark Ellison QC and Martin Secrett, QEB Hollis Whiteman, were interviewed by Guy Hewetson, LPA Legal