Welcome to my first Counsel column as Chair of the Bar for 2020. I am delighted and excited about my term, not least because until recently, it had never crossed my mind that I might have this privileged role. I have the honour to be the third female Chair of the Bar in eight years, the fourth in 126 years and the second to have a family. As I write this, the general election is days away, the manner (or indeed the fact) of leaving the EU is unknown and Christmas songs are in the charts. By the time you read this, things will have moved on. In my inaugural speech, I said: ‘Whoever wins the next election must maintain a properly funded justice system and recognise the value of legal services to our country so that trust and confidence can be restored in this vital public service.’ That is my hope for 2020.
So, who am I and what do I want to try and change?
I am, by background, a general criminal practitioner. Over the years, I have become more specialised in fraud, corporate crime, corruption and money laundering and most of my work has an international element to it. I know first-hand the problems with the criminal justice system and publicly funded fees and the lack of investment in our courts. After taking silk in 2006, I was elected to the CBA and shortly after joined the International Committee of the Bar. Then, its business development side was almost exclusively concerned with commercial practitioners. But over the years it spread its reach far more widely and as its Chair of the International Committee, I enjoyed championing our entire profession, to develop work for us all, including young practitioners, in many different practice areas, and to uphold the rule of law overseas.
2019 was a celebratory year for the legal profession. We celebrated 125 years of the Bar Council and 100 years since women became ‘persons’ and could qualify to become barristers and solicitors. Those are important anniversaries to mark but, in 2020, I want us to look ahead to ensure the relevance of the Bar. I believe that the independent Bar is crucial to the delivery of justice in this country, whether we are working from chambers or employed.
What are my aims for the year? The Bar Council’s emblem is the scales of justice and the words ‘justice for all’. What does that mean in a practical sense? For me, justice for all can only be achieved if everyone has effective access to justice. I focus, in particular, on three aspects: access to justice for all; access to our profession; and access to international markets.
Access to justice for all – that means: regardless of your wealth or circumstances, regardless of where you live, who you are or what problem you face, you can use the justice system effectively. For that to be a reality, we need some basics: courts that are close enough to be accessible to their users and that are open; justice delivered by judges without inordinate delays; listing cases realistically so that citizens do not pay for unnecessary, ineffective hearings; maintenance of the fabric of the court system, including IT, that is adequate for the 21st century; a justice system that is affordable, using technological advances wisely and suitably; a judiciary that is valued and supported. And, of course, it includes appropriate legal help for all. I will do everything I can to help improve that.
Access to the profession – for everyone who is good enough, no matter who you are or where you come from. I believe we must recruit and retain people who reflect the society which we serve for three particular reasons: so that society can be confident that the justice system is for everyone; so that the Bar does not miss out on a huge amount of talent; and so that we provide a broad pool of the best barristers to become our senior judiciary. If we don’t diversify, we will fail on each of these fronts. The Bar Council, with many others, is already driving diversification. I will help this collective effort. We must do more to progress the careers of everyone who has the ability and drive to be a barrister. Let’s improve the fair distribution of briefs, the importance of wellbeing, the collegiality of our work (in chambers or at the employed Bar) and a work/home life balance, so more barristers will enjoy full careers. These ways of working should become the norm. We are conducting a Working Lives Survey 2020 to see how things have changed since 2017, so we can measure how well we are doing.
And thirdly, access to international markets. Legal services contribute immensely to our economy: the most recent figures show a contribution of some £26.8bn (in 2017). Our jurisdiction currently enjoys a unique position which straddles the EU, the Commonwealth and Common Law legal services markets. I will continue to promote the excellence of our global position and to press our advantage. But leaving the EU will adversely affect the ease with which UK judgments can be enforced in Europe and across the world; it will also restrict, or even abolish rights of audience for barristers in EU courts; separately, commercial courts and alternative dispute resolution centres are being established around the globe, increasing the competition we face.
I look forward to working for and with you all in the year ahead. I want to meet as many of you as possible (Circuit visits are already being planned). Your input will be crucial to the Bar Council’s success in representing you. So, please do get in touch. I can’t wait to get cracking!