At the Bar Standards Board (BSB), we refer to ourselves as a public interest regulator and say that we adopt a risk and evidence-based approach to regulation. While on the face of it, these phrases might be thought of as ‘regulator speak’, in practice they are fundamental principles that ensure that our regulation is targeted, has no unnecessary barriers to competition and seeks to protect the public. Our approach to assuring professional standards at the Bar is an excellent example of these principles in action.

It is common for there to be defined skills and competences (or ‘professional standards’) that members of a profession are expected to meet. Few would argue against the suggestion that the primary role for the BSB is to set the standards that we expect of barristers and to ensure that those entering the profession meet those standards and continue to do so throughout their careers.

In fulfilling this role, the BSB can give assurance to members of the public that they have access to barristers who are competent to practise. But professional standards are not just the preserve of the regulator. Equally important is the role that the profession itself plays in maintaining standards. A profession operates effectively where its members set high standards for themselves and each other and take pride in the quality of the service that they provide to clients. The aim then is for the BSB to adopt an approach which sets a clear regulatory framework for professional standards and which holds the profession to account in maintaining those standards, while at the same time encouraging the barrister profession to flourish.

It is these issues that the BSB has been wrestling with in the development of its professional standards strategy. The principles of that strategy can be found on our website. We recognise that the profession is currently focused on recovering from the effects of the national health emergency, but the question of maintaining and raising standards is essential and will therefore be one of our priorities for the coming year.

It is important to acknowledge that there is no evidence of widescale concerns, and standards of practice at the Bar are generally high. Our strategy is therefore focused on ensuring that those high standards are maintained, with intervention limited to where there is evidence of a problem.

The BSB has over the last few years introduced a number of initiatives which apply equally to all barristers and which are designed to promote high standards of practice and to give confidence to the public that, when they need it, they have access to high quality legal representation. For example, in 2016 we introduced the Professional Statement. This Statement sets the skills and competences expected of barristers when they enter the profession, complete their pupillage and as they continue throughout their careers. In common with most other professions, we also have in place Continuing Professional Development, or CPD, requirements for barristers. Gone is the prescriptive approach to CPD which required barristers to complete a specified number of hours of CPD each year. It has been replaced by an approach that places greater responsibility on barristers for their learning and development and leaves decisions around the nature and amount of CPD to the barristers themselves.

Where there is evidence of a problem in a particular area of practice, we will look to develop, in consultation with barristers, consumer organisations and other interested parties, measures that will help raise standards. For example, in response to concerns highlighted through independent research in 2015, we have introduced specific competences for practice in the Youth Court and put in place means of ensuring those standards are met. Similarly, and in the light of independent reports into deaths in custody and the Hillsborough Inquiry, we are developing standards and guidance for practice in Coroners Courts. These are being produced in consultation with barristers involved in this area of practice, coroners and families.

We need to keep abreast of standards at the Bar so that we can respond where evidence of a problem occurs. We do this through monitoring the information that we capture through our supervisory and disciplinary work and through regular engagement with other regulators, organisations such as the CPS and the Inns and with the profession itself.

We cannot be complacent, though, and will continue to take proactive steps where there is evidence of a need to do so. One such area is CPD. Most barristers take very seriously their responsibilities to keep up to date and to develop their professional skills and competence. CPD is an effective means, annually, for barristers to think about their professional development. An important part of that process is thinking, or reflecting, on your work to identify strengths to build on and weaknesses to address. To do that as effectively as possible, it helps to have the views of a range of different people on how you are doing.

For my own annual appraisal, this means seeking feedback from people within my department, from my peers, from more senior colleagues and from people outside the BSB. I find it enormously valuable to get an independent perspective on what I do well and what I could do better or differently. We believe that the same would apply for barristers.

In December 2019, we published research on how barristers have responded to the new approach to CPD. Generally, it painted a positive picture, but it did highlight that barristers were less familiar with ‘reflective practice’ and the role it played in learning and development. Similarly, we know that barristers and chambers do not consistently seek feedback from clients, their instructing solicitors, other barristers, or the judiciary. We believe that this is a missed opportunity and are keen to look at means by which gathering feedback and reflection can become a routine aspect of practice as a barrister. We think it will strengthen the value of CPD in promoting professional standards and help bring greater focus to barristers when considering their professional development.

We will share our thoughts each year on the areas and aspects of practice that we think barristers might want to consider when setting their CPD learning objectives each year, based on what we have seen over the preceding 12 months. The first of these was included in the February edition of our Regulatory Update and covered the use of technology, equality and diversity and pupil supervision. We will also engage with CPD training providers to understand how they develop their training programmes and to ensure that there is an adequate supply of high-quality training opportunities.

We want to hear your views, both on CPD and more generally on our approach to professional standards, and there will be opportunities for you to contribute your thoughts and ideas over the coming weeks and months. We will also engage with consumers and consumer organisations and are particularly interested to understand what information or assurances they believe that members of the public need in order to have confidence that their barristers meet expected levels of professional standards.

Do look out for opportunities to contribute and please feel free to contact me at the BSB if, in the meantime, you would like to discuss this important area of our work.