Practical ethics at the Young Bar, David Wurtzel reports

Ethics Committee

  • Moderator Rachel Langdale QC, Chair of the Ethics Committee, 7BR
  • Speakers James Hines QC, Vice-Chair of the Ethics Committee, Three Raymond Buildings; Fenner Moeran QC, Vice-Chair of the Ethics Committee, Wilberforce Chambers; Helena Duong, Ethics Committee, Young Barristers’ Committee, 23 Essex Street

This workshop consisted of excellent discussions between panel and delegates of issues which barristers of all ages might well encounter. The panel made clear the committee’s remit. It offers ethical but not legal advice; the task of the confidential advice hotline is to take the enquiring barrister through the core values in the Handbook. However, it is instructed counsel who has to make the judgment call and to bear the responsibility. It is they who hold the brief and know the lay client.

There was advice on how to protect counsel’s position: get the brief endorsed, show you have thought about the issue, and send confirming emails if you have consulted the Bar Council hotline and/or spoken to a senior member of chambers. ‘At base we are not the mere mouthpieces of our clients,’ Fenner pointed out. So it is best to explain counsel’s role to the lay client at the very start.

Delegates were supplied with a list of ethical issues. Resolving them can be balancing exercises and unsurprisingly not everyone agreed on the ‘answer’. One problem dealt with the situation where the Crown has told the court that the defendant has no relevant convictions although defence counsel knows that the defendant is in fact subject to a suspended sentence. It was suggested that one should say to the defendant, ‘the best I can do is to stand up and say I offer no mitigation, but if I’m asked by the judge, I’ve got to tell the truth’.

Other issues concerned disclosure of one’s previous involvement with the litigants on the other side (for example having once represented a company which your client is now suing) and how to deal with the more robust allegations which a client may want you to put to the other side’s witness.

The prime duty remains a barrister’s duty to the court in the administration of justice. As Fenner put it, ‘either you stand up and perform as a barrister or you don’t – not with a nudge or a wink’.

The conference later learned of the launch of the new Ethics and Practice Hub, which will be available on phones and tablets, and which provides guidance on ethical issues, as well as guidance on IT, equality and diversity and other practice issues: barcouncilethics.co.uk.

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