Cloth Fair will be four years’ old in May 2010. It was the first set of its kind with each Silk no 1 in their field…how has this model worked out?
Fantastically well. There’s a perceived risk in barristers moving sets and particularly to a venture such as this. Ultimately, I think success resides in quality rather than number and that has certainly proved the case here. It is often assumed that we have a narrow client base given our number. Nicholas Purnell QC and John Kelsey-Fry QC together received instructions from 68 separate firms of solicitors last financial year. Success is often identified in figures. Ours have been consistently moving in the right direction; we will achieve 20 per cent growth this financial year. I am delighted with that; particularly given we now comprise five Silks and two juniors against seven Silks in 2008/09.
Do you think there will be other “super sets” in the wake of continued cuts in publicly funded work and the legal service reforms?
Cuts in publicly funded work are the reason behind an inevitable reshaping of the Bar. The Bar is eager for reform because of the unsustainable cuts in legal aid. The biggest threat is to the public. If pressure on the Bar results in a criminal defence service of some description we are likely to find advocates on both sides of the fence who are employed by the State. That is entirely at odds with the public interest. The independence of those representing the public is inherently vital to the administration of justice. There is no point in shouting at the wind. Government has not and will not listen. For an independent criminal Bar to survive in the long term, chambers cannot rely on publicly funded work. We have achieved that aim with room to spare. Some members here maintain a 100 per cent privately funded practice. Others may choose to undertake legally aided cases of particular merit or interest. In the last 12 months our practice comprised 86 per cent private client, 11 per cent independent authority and 3 per cent publicly funded.
I knew Edmund Lawson QC quite well and understood he was one of the lynchpins of chambers…how have things been since his untimely death?
The start of 2009 was an incredibly sad time for us. There is no question that he was one of the greats, professionally and personally. It was an honour to clerk him. He very much believed in what Cloth Fair stands for and what we seek to achieve. Given the cuts in funding, the future of the independent criminal Bar was and is under threat. The founder members of chambers wanted to ensure the provision of top quality, independent legal advice and representation in the face of such threat. That is the concept behind Cloth Fair, an ethos that will live on beyond us all to the benefit of future generations. I’d like to think he would approve of how matters were dealt with through a very difficult time and how chambers has continued to flourish. On a personal level it helped that Jonathan Barnard joined us in January 2009 and Clare Sibson was just weeks away from arriving. This helped give new impetus; their arrival enhanced our dynamic and went at least some of the way to soften the loss of not having Mr Lawson around the place.
Is chambers likely to expand or will it continue to retain the same structure?
There are no specific plans to add to our number. It is natural to seek to progress, but that does not necessarily mean an increase in bodies. Observers often expect some form of expansion. That will never be an option for the sake of numbers alone. Our financial foundations are solid; we are running chambers at an inclusive 12.5 per cent against turnover. I aim to see that ratio reduce to 10 per cent, which is achievable. The expected 20 per cent increase in turnover will help in that regard. We therefore have no need to seek additional numbers from a financial perspective. Our model depends on quality, which is why we are delighted to have welcomed Jonathan Barnard and Clare Sibson to the fold.
Will the legal service reforms have an impact on your chambers?
It is impossible to evaluate the options until there is a tangible framework in place. It is an advantage to collate the views of seven members of chambers rather than seventy. The bespoke nature of chambers and our number allows us to react to changes in market conditions more efficiently than most. Ours is already a successful and unique model which we are not clamouring to alter. That is also an advantage; we will not rush to commit to irreversible changes. Along with Charlotte Bircher, the Commercial Director, I must consistently seek to enhance our practice and to that end we must be aware of what benefit alternative business structures could bring but, put simply, there is no alternative to ability and ambition.
Nick Newman, Cloth Fair Chambers, was interviewed by Guy Hewetson, LPA Legal