These meetings confirmed that we are one Bar, a unified profession. Some suggest that the profession is fragmented, focusing on the increased specialisation and substantial earning differentials. I disagree with this. My own professional background is in infrastructure and energy disputes in courts across England and Wales, and in international arbitrations, both in London and overseas. At our core, we are advocates. We earn our livelihoods primarily through advocacy, written and oral, whether in courts, arbitrations, before tribunals, in mediation, or in board rooms. Many also provide specialist advice to our clients, but advocacy is at the heart of this profession. Some of us may be employed by businesses, or be involved in an entity, or may be employed by the Government Legal Service. But we are all part of one independent Bar. By way of example, the health and future of the criminal and family Bar are essential to the whole Bar, and are understood to be so by the whole Bar.
The Bar, in 2015, is a modern profession – it is a profession of excellence, independence and flexibility. It has survived not because of protectionism, or elitism, but because it has continued to perform, and it has, where necessary and appropriate, adapted. Many of the challenges this profession faces today, and how we respond to them, are about preserving what is valuable in the Bar and about ensuring that this profession is viable as a profession and a career of choice for the next generation. The Bar needs a strong representative body, representing the profession as a whole. It has this in the Bar Council, which is at the heart of this profession’s representational activity. It does not act alone, but works very closely with other important members of the Bar family, in particular the Circuits and the Specialist Bar Associations. It lobbies government, and opposition parties, on matters affecting the Bar and the justice system. Recent examples include campaigning for the criminal courts charge to be dropped (which it was in December 2015), challenging judicial review changes aimed at restricting citizens from holding the executive to account, campaigning against the planned further cut of 8.75% to criminal advocacy fees (which was not implemented), resisting the introduction of increased civil court and tribunal fees, campaigning for a replacement to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme and calling for the protection by statute of legal professional privilege.
Through the Bar Council, the Bar influences the public policy and legislation affecting the provision of specialist advocacy services and affecting the justice system more widely. In the first 11 months of 2015 we reviewed a staggering 121 external consultations, and responded to 40, ranging from Home Office consultations on Communications to the MoJ’s consultation on Enhancing the Quality of Criminal Advocacy to the European Commission’s Questionnaire on Contract Rules for Online Purchases of Digital Content and Tangible Goods.
As the representative body for the whole profession, the Bar Council provides practical and ethical assistance to barristers on a daily basis. The most striking example is the ethics helpline run for the Bar which over a 12 month period responded to some 6,000 telephone enquiries and to over 500 emails.
It is also best placed to provide services for the Bar as a whole, where need arises as a result of changing circumstances. Recent examples include investing in the Direct Access Portal set up by members of the Bar to make it easier for barristers who want to offer their services to the public directly and setting up BARCO, a third party company owned and operated by the Bar Council, which operates an escrow service receiving funds from clients. BARCO can be used for a range of situations, including where a barrister is instructed by an overseas firm or client, is instructed by a client directly, or is instructed in a traditional way by a solicitor, but where the solicitor is unwilling to take responsibility for paying the barrister’s fees. In short it provides protection for the barrister, securing funds without the barrister handling client funds, and it provides protection for the client.
These are but a very small number of the activities the Bar Council carries out for barristers, but they demonstrate the value for the profession of a unified and strong representative body. In addition to a committed staff and the valuable engagement by many members there are two essential ingredients: first, the increasingly important annual Bar Representation Fee (BRF) of £100 paid by individual members which funds a significant element of the representative work; and, secondly, the Bar Council’s ability to communicate with its members about the extent of the Bar Council’s work and the services available.
My goals for 2016 include promoting a greater take up of the BRF and improving the Bar’s awareness of what the Bar Council does. As a first step, I have invited every Head of Chambers to nominate a barrister to act as the liaison with the Bar Council. These representatives will provide feedback to the Bar Council from members in Chambers and will act as ambassadors for the Bar Council. I hope this way also to bring more, and newer, faces into the Bar Council, to ensure that we continue to reflect the profession.
There continue to be real challenges ahead. I have seen and heard about some first-hand during my visits to Crown Courts and in discussions with the Circuits and the SBAs. The Bar, and those who value the Bar, should not underestimate those challenges. But the Bar has survived over many centuries because of its ability to adapt to changes in society, its commitment to the highest professional standards and to excellence in advocacy. I am confident that the Bar will survive, and thrive, and I am committed to working to ensure that the profession, and the Bar Council at the end of 2016 is in a stronger place, building on the work of my predecessors.
Contributor Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, Chairman of the Bar