SOS Ethics: the helpline

James Woolf explains the role of the Bar Council’s Ethical Enquiries Service.

“I’m pretty sure that I know the answer to this, but I’d just like to run it by you.” With this line or something similar begin many of the calls handled by the Bar Council’s Ethical Enquiries Line. Perhaps this should not be surprising, as part of the purpose of the service is to provide a safety net for the profession, a sounding board if you like for barristers who find themselves in those knotty situations which clearly engage the Code of Conduct. 


Most members of the Bar know that an ethics helpline exists but many will not be familiar with the practical details. The ethical enquiries service, which deals with both telephone and written enquiries, is comprised of a team of seven members of staff who have been fully trained in the Bar’s Code of Conduct and a support team of three members. The service responds to approximately 600 enquiries a month.

The support team initially screens the telephone calls; urgent calls are immediately connected to a member of the team and barristers with less urgent enquiries receive a call back. We aim to respond to urgent calls within a few hours and certainly by the end of the day. The reason for screening the calls in this way is that all team members have other Bar Council committees to service, and therefore other priority work for which they are responsible.

The ethical enquiries telephone line (020 7611 1307) is available between 9.15 am and 5.15 pm. Barristers who write in can do so by emailing enquiries to ethics@barcouncil.org.uk; or by sending a letter or fax. The support team allocates the written enquiries to team members and responses are sent, usually within 2 days. A recent survey of the ethical enquiries services indicates that over 91 per cent of barristers contact the service by telephone, less than 1 per cent use snail mail, the remainder using e-mail.

Referral to the PPC

Particularly difficult enquiries are referred to a member of the Professional Practice Committee (PPC), which oversees the work of the helpline. Members of this committee, which is chaired by Nicholas Lavender QC, have also had training in dealing with the most testing ethical enquiries. Barrister members of the PPC also volunteer to intervene in those cases where the committee considers there is a point of principle at stake. (For an example of where the PPC has intervened, see R v Rochford, opposite.)

Where do the enquiries come from?

The majority of enquiries are from criminal practitioners, although calls from the civil and family Bars are significant in number. Enquiries from the employed Bar tend to be less common. The ethical enquiries team will also respond to questions from non-practising or retired barristers, but calls from solicitors or disgruntled clients are passed to the Bar Standards Board. The team have also had special training in detecting students who pose as barristers in order to receive assistance with ethical enquiries set as part of their coursework!

While it is not possible for the ethical enquiries team to record the details of all calls received, barristers are encouraged to summarise the enquiry and guidance in an e-mail which team members will then be happy to confirm as an accurate record. It is expected that the Bar Council’s new core database which will become operational later this month will improve the accuracy and sophistication for compiling and recording of statistics.

What types of enquiries are received?

Many calls are received from barristers ringing from outside court and involve potential professional embarrassment (para 603 of the Code of Conduct). Some concern a change of story or instructions by the client. Barristers are occasionally surprised to hear that a change of story by the client does not automatically mean that they are professionally embarrassed; depending on the circumstances of the case, it is often possible for the barrister to continue to act for the client.

Another common enquiry is the barrister who has been handed a case late in the day and has not had enough time to prepare. Again, the response provided by the Bar Council is often unexpected. In these circumstances, unless other professional work has prevented or will prevent the barrister from preparing the new case, he is duty bound to continue even if circumstances have made it impossible for him to represent his client as effectively as he would wish. The message is that it is almost always better for the client to have some representation than none at all.

Other enquiries may centre on whether or not a client is fit to plead, or may have been prompted by a threat made by the client to maim or kill a witness or other person involved in proceedings. Recently, the service has been dealing with many calls regarding new practising arrangements and the setting up of ProcureCos. Public access enquiries always generate a steady stream of enquiries. In fact, the variety of enquiries fielded by the ethical enquiries services is extraordinary and covers the full gamut of a barrister’s practice. It is this variety which makes the task of dealing with the calls so challenging whilst at the same time ensuring that the job is never dull.

I touched earlier on those cases where the Bar will intervene on points of principle. One such case arose last year (R v Rochford). But it is of course unusual for the Bar Council to intervene in a case. Usually its role is limited to giving advice, although this in itself is not always straight forward. It does happen that a barrister on one side of the case will call up the advice line and within minutes counsel on the other side will telephone regarding the same issue. In this situation, the original adviser becomes professionally embarrassed and the second call will be dealt with by somebody else.

Many enquiries relate to qualification, or rights of audience, or whether or not a barrister can hold out as such whilst providing a legal service. These types of enquiries are usually technical and are typically not terribly interesting, but one of our all time favourites was made by a former solicitor who had been struck off for accounts irregularities. He also had a criminal record for dishonesty. Somewhat endearingly, he wondered whether these factors would prevent him from qualifying as a barrister, and, if not, whether his past career would provide any exemptions in qualifying.

Calls welcome anytime and on any issue

The recent survey of barristers who have contacted the ethical enquiries service shows that the provision of ethical advice by the Bar Council remains a highly valued service. A very solid 87 per cent of barristers were either very satisfied or satisfied with the service, whilst 78.5 per cent found the guidance they had received both helpful and relevant. The Bar Council is always trying to improve our service to members of the Bar. We would therefore welcome any suggestions for improvement to the ethical enquiries line and would be pleased to discuss the service generally with those who are interested to know more.

There are of course plenty of barristers who only contact the Bar Council for ethical guidance once in a decade or less. Others find that circumstances dictate that they need to call more often. The message we would like to impress upon the Bar is that if you are faced with a tricky ethical problem, we are always happy to offer guidance. Being a barrister can be a lonely and stressful job and a call to the ethical advice line can certainly help lighten the load.

Ethical enquiries telephone helpline: 020 7611 1307

E-mail: ethics@barcouncil.org.uk

Case study - R v Rochford

A defence barrister telephoned the helpline after the judge threatened to imprison him for contempt of court as a result of his advice to his client in relation to serving a revised defence case statement. The following day Nicholas Lavender QC, the Chairman of the PPC, appeared in court and the learned judge withdrew his remarks and apologised for them. The Bar Council, however, took the view that the case raised issues which were likely to arise in future cases as to the limits on the advice which advocates can properly give to their clients concerning defence case statements. The Bar Council therefore sought leave to intervene in the hearing of the appeal against the defendant’s committal for contempt and John Ryder QC duly made submissions on behalf of the Bar Council (see R v Rochford [2010] EWCA Crim 1928, [2010] 1 WLR 534).

Ryder invited the Court of Appeal to clarify counsel’s responsibility when advising on defence case statements. The court held that it is not a contempt of court for a defendant to fail to comply with the statutory requirements as to the service of defence case statements, but that counsel should not advise his client to breach those requirements. This was clearly an important decision for the professional conduct of advocates.

James Woolf, Manager of Ethics and Training, Bar Council

 

 

 

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