Calm, measured and utterly reasonable. An excellent advocate and an outstanding Leader of the Western Circuit. Readers, I know him well. Even gave him his red bag, as he kindly reminded me. None of which deters me from testing him on his plans and some of the issues of the hour. His back history is Bristol-centred: University, then Guildhall Chambers, after pupillage with Adrian Palmer QC. What brought him to the law?
‘I went to court and saw two barristers in a criminal trial. And I was struck by the fairness of the proceedings. A distinct moment. It had never been on my radar, but then I thought – this is for me.’
And what of his pupil master? ‘I am devoted to Adrian. A brilliant advocate and an intellectual giant, which made me forever aware of my limitations.’
What of early influences and Circuit figures who inspired him? ‘Three. James Black QC was a master of short elegant submissions and Paul Chad QC, whose advocacy could be terrifying. Lastly Sir John Royce, who has been a father figure to me. Without his encouragement, I would not have become Leader of the Circuit or doing this.’
And when he was green and in his salad days, what was his practice? ‘When I began, I did the mixture of PI, family and crime as everyone did in those days. In five years I stopped doing family work and by 15, I had focused on crime.’
I try to draw out our new Chairman about the value of a Circuit practice. ‘The Circuit means more to me today than as a youngster, when it was there when you needed it. Today, discussing issues with Circuit Leaders and sharing them with the Bar is so important, when everybody has less time. Those shared experiences are so important. Circuit education used to be ad hoc, but not essential. Now it has become more targeted and it delivers up-to-the-minute structured crucial training. Proactive Circuit training is one of the most rewarding activities I know. And yes, I agree with whoever said that Leadership of the Western Circuit is the best job in the world. Talking to Circuit Leaders, to a man and woman, they think the same of their own Circuits. It is a mixture of commonality and camaraderie and how you can bring about change.
‘I had remarkably little to do with the Bar Council for a long time, in common with many who do not have an understanding of what it does. But when you come in contact with it, your eyes are opened. As Circuit Leader, it was legal aid that worried me. But what drove me into the Bar Council was recognition that together we are very good at taking on challenges. We are adaptable and good at meeting threats, many of which subside once we have pointed out what the consequences to the delivery of justice will be. In other words, I am an optimist. I want to bring to the policy makers the consequences of their decisions.
‘I want the junior Bar to be able to compete fairly. There are unfair challenges that they have to face in terms of their career advancement. All we have ever asked for is a chance to compete fairly. The long-term objective is to enable the junior Bar to flourish. I am alarmed that whereas the Bar as a whole increases in number as time goes by, nonetheless in the last few years there has been a slight decline in the number of those under 10 years’ Call. We need to concentrate on nurturing the junior Bar.
‘And I am concerned that we take for granted the high reputation of our judiciary. Many misunderstand their role. I am also alarmed by suggestions questioning judicial impartiality. With freedom of the press comes responsibility.’
At that point, your correspondent fancied a crafty googly. How would he speak of the Lord Chancellor, not least in the light of sustained criticism that her defence of the judges had been characterised as ‘too little and too late’? He was diplomatic and not to be bowled out.
‘Whatever happens, we must be in a position to put our best foot forward to advance an argument. Therefore we want to ensure that the Lord Chancellor listens to us. We want to make sure we give as much guidance as we can, when asked for it. We want to recognise, with her and with her advisers, the ramifications of policy. I have met her once and will do so again before Christmas.’
And his relationship with the Law Society? ‘Robert Bourne is a man I know well from years back. He is an extremely impressive ambassador for his profession. I particularly agree with the stance he takes on politicians trying to associate lawyers with the causes of their clients. He has taken an impressive lead on that and I want to join him. In our relationship generally with solicitors, our interests almost always coincide. But I think there have been very significant distortions in the marketplace in relations to the criminal Bar and the costs regime in civil cases. Not all solicitors are going to agree with me on how that needs to be put right. But I am very conscious that there is a coincidence of public interest on the main issues of the day.’
Then a surprise to your correspondent, who generally loves the onward march of technology sweeping across the legal stage. The new Chairman plainly has real concerns, both practical and humane and he spoke with some feeling.
‘We live in a very significant time of court reform. The Bar has to focus on the day-to-day. But we are being drawn into the process of the reform programme and generally, with some radical programmes. Some the Bar will welcome. But much of it will cause judges, barristers and solicitors to worry. Just because something is technologically possible does not necessarily make it desirable. I am worried about online justice and virtual hearings. Justice has a human face and it is not a face on the screen. The direction of travel worries me a little. That is not reactionary or Luddite, because we are a very innovative profession. But I am not convinced that because a virtual hearing may be less expensive or more convenient, it makes it more desirable. Both in civil and criminal justice it appears to be accepted that there will always be hearings which require us to come together in one place. But the overall direction of travel is to move away from hearings which require it. When considering the desirability of virtual and flexible courts it is also impossible not to consider the related question of a programme of court closures. I am concerned that future generations will wonder whether or not we have taken a wrong turn.’
It was time for a less serious question. What at the Bar gave him most pleasure? ‘I love watching barristers of whatever seniority and committed Bar Council staff being brilliant in advocating the cause of our profession. They do that in the 12 standing committees and in the Bar Council meetings, and in conversation in the corridors, for example worrying away at a response to another consultation. Watching brilliant advocates working in the cause of their profession is extremely inspiring. Brexit is obviously going to continue to be a great issue for all of us. We have a Bar Council Brexit working group chaired by Hugh Mercer QC. We are producing short, pithy and very focused documents for anyone who wants to read them and for government, setting out some of the practical issues and making recommendations as to what can be done about them. Brilliant documents from leaders in their field.’
I conclude that our new Chairman is surefooted and clear in his views. No latter-day Paxman is likely to penetrate his guard. But above all, what comes through is that he is a real leader, in the proper meaning of that word, in exactly the same way as he was on our Circuit. Sir John Royce was right. This Circuiteer will be a success. Much as it may raise the eyebrows of my non-Circuit friends, I could not be more pleased or proud.
Contributor Nigel Pascoe QC, Pump Court Chambers and a member of the Counsel Editorial Board