My answer to this question has always been that we are one Bar; we are at heart all advocates and adhere to the same essential values. A pupil approaching his second six months recently said to me that he decided on the Bar as a career because he was looking for the freedom, independence, challenge, and advocacy which this profession still offers. However, those who question whether there is one Bar also tend to suggest that regional differences are another reason why it is wrong to assert that there is one Bar.
Over the last few weeks, I have been to Leeds, Manchester, Brighton, Nottingham, Bristol, and Winchester. I will be continuing these visits across the Circuits, including visits to Birmingham, Cardiff, Swansea, Teesside, and Newcastle. Although I am based in London, it is axiomatic that I represent all barristers wherever they may be. I have no doubt that from time to time the Bar Council could improve its reach, but it is my aim, and the aim of the Bar Council, to represent the profession across the regions.
These recent visits to barristers’ chambers and local courts around the country have been encouraging. Encouraging because it is clear to me that the Bar is not looking just to survive, but is often finding ways of thriving. I have visited criminal sets seeking to recruit both pupils and barristers laterally because they have the work to do so. I have spoken to senior clerks and barristers who are enthusiastic about direct access, not for all work, but as a useful and valuable supplement to the more mainstream referral work. Perhaps most encouragingly, I have spoken to young barristers in crime, family and civil who are cautiously optimistic about making a go of a career at the Bar.
But these visits have also been valuable for allowing me to hear first hand about the real challenges which remain for practitioners. These include: the difficulties presented by persistent warned lists in some regions; the pressures faced by criminal barristers having to work longer hours to earn less; the increasingly stressful environment in which some practise, whether as prosecution barristers who may not receive sufficient instructions from the Crown Prosecution Service owing to the cuts imposed on the CPS, or as family barristers increasingly facing litigants in person or McKenzie Friends; the threat felt by many at the civil Bar from the recent proposals by Lord Justice Jackson for fixed costs; and the fear that social mobility and diversity will be further undermined by the combination of substantial student loans and large numbers on the Bar Professional Training Course.
If the Bar Council is to represent the profession effectively, it is important that we hear from our members, and that we are able to increase awareness of the work that we do, be it lobbying in Westminster, negotiation with the Legal Aid Agency or the CPS, or responding to government consultations, or providing guidance on matters such as wellness and equality and diversity. During a robing room visit in one Crown Court the conversation turned to what the Bar Council does for its members. Among other matters, we discussed the role of the Remuneration Committee, whose recent work has included: in criminal legal aid, working with the Ministry of Justice towards a new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), and improvements to the Very High Cost Case (VHCC) Scheme; in family and civil, engaging with the Legal Aid Agency on new family VHCC arrangements, providing training to barristers and clerks in the use of the new online client and cost management system billing, and producing guidance for barristers on civil legal aid. It has also established a working group to lead on the Bar’s response to and engagement with policy makers of the fixed fees proposals set out by Jackson LJ. The Remuneration Committee’s Taxation Panel has also been active recently, responding to HMRC consultations and other proposals and is in the process of updating the Bar Council’s Taxation and Retirement Benefits Handbook. Explaining its work and the direct benefit to members, it was clear to me that there was little awareness, but once explained there was a genuine appreciation of the hard work carried out by barristers on a pro bono basis and by Bar Council staff.
The last few years have seen a good working relationship between the Circuits and the Bar Council. To give just two examples of really effective collaboration, with the close involvement of the Criminal Bar Association, there is the joint lobbying of Government on the need for a new AGFS and on an advocates’ defence panel; and secondly, our joint work, together with the Inns, the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks, and specialist Bar associations and others on wellness issues and the programme that we are currently putting together to help barristers better address how their work, and working environment, impact on their psychological health and wellbeing. We are stronger when we work together as one profession, whether in Liverpool or in London, in family or in commercial, or employed or self-employed.
My visits thus far have convinced me that the Bar Council does need to promote greater awareness of its work. One way we are trying to do this is through BarTalk, a fortnightly email blog for barristers. If you are not receiving it and would like to, please email BarTalk@BarCouncil.org.uk. Another is the new ambassador scheme, through which I am hoping to have one barrister in each chambers nominated as the liaison with the Bar Council. If your chambers has not yet appointed an ambassador, please consider doing so and email email@example.com. Finally, if you are interested in shaping the future of Counsel, the official magazine of the Bar, through working on its Editorial Board, please send an expression of interest explaining your suitability, relevant skills and experience along with a CV to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributor Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, Chairman of the Bar