The Bar Archives

magnifyDavid Wurtzel finds that the records kept in the Bar Council library contain a real treasure trove of the Bar Council’s history.

Although the law is based on precedent, the least well known part of the Bar Council premises is its library, situated in the basement and presided over since 1994 by the librarian, the splendid Rosa Munoz. “I call myself the keeper of the memory of the Bar Council. The Bar Council is a series of committees where decisions are made,” she said before I began my trawl through some of the treasures which she has preserved, conserved and kept safe for the future—Bar Council minutes, committee papers, news, notices, Bar News, Counsel magazine, historic agreements, Royal Commission reports—in fact the whole written “memory” since the original “Bar Committee” was formed in 1883. From time to time I paused to continue my discussions with Rosa about the Spanish Civil War. Rosa was born in Spain during the Franco era (“our 40 years of shame”) and grew up in an atmosphere where history books were censored, families still stood divided, and opponents of the regime were hidden for decades in order to avoid arrest. She has lived in England since the 1960s, arguably more appreciative than the barristers she came to serve of what the rule of law really means.


The Bar Committee was set up with the permission of the Attorney General following a petition of 285 members of the Bar. The object of the new body was to “collect and express the opinions of the members of the Bar on matters affecting the profession and to take such action thereon as may be deemed expedient”. The first meeting was held in Inner Temple Hall on 5 May 1883. The first annual report stated that “they have been able to work in harmony” with the Incorporated Law Society “and they believe that it will be greatly for the benefit of the two branches of the Profession and of the Public at large that they should, as far as possible, co-operate in the future”. In due course (1918) they would refuse to cooperate with the Law Society’s proposal for a Ministry of Justice (“nothing should interfere with the Lord Chancellor as the responsible head of that system”) or for a National School of Law, which would remove Bar students from “the jurisdiction and control of the Inns of Court”.

The Committee’s first resolution was “it is not desirable to alter any existing practice under which Barristers do not see or advise clients without the intervention of Solicitors”. However, in what may have been the first “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” letter, in November 1883 one John Marshall of Tunbridge Wells (a barrister of 34 years’ standing) asked that “consideration should be given whether the Public cannot have advice and conferences with a Barrister at a moderate fee without being obliged to have recourse in the first instance to a solicitor, at, in many cases, a ruinous cost”. He claimed that he could draw up drafts for conveyancing for 25 guineas but he knew of parties who had to pay £500 (£25,000 in today’s money) to solicitors. “If barristers could see clients direct, the cost of conveyancing would be trifling.” The movement for direct access had begun.

A longstanding problem: getting paid

The problem of being unable to sue for one’s fees soon found a possible remedy. The Barristers Fees Bill 1886 would have enabled barristers to recover their fees but also to make them responsible for negligence. The Committee unanimously resolved that such a Bill would be “injurious to the interests of the public and to both branches of the profession and that every effort should be made to prevent its being passed”. It was not enacted into law. Not that the Bar Council (as it became in 1894) was insensitive to the problem or unwilling to confront solicitors about it. It held in 1899 that “the Council should not act as a debt collecting body for Members of the Bar” but if a case arose where the defaulting client “should be exposed and punished, and that in such cases assistance might properly be given to Members of the Bar in taking proceedings before the Statutory Committee of the Incorporated Law Society” then it would. There was such a case and the solicitor was duly found guilty of professional misconduct.

Trouble from Brussels

In 1888, a Congress on International Law was held in Brussels but as the invitation was received during the middle of the Long Vacation, it was found impossible to procure the attendance of any representative of the English Bar. Nine years later, an invitation to Brussels for the International Congress of Advocates was received. The Council decided that the time had not then arrived for sending a definitive reply to this. The invitation came with what in more recent times would be called Brussels bureaucracy, namely a lengthy questionnaire bearing on the profession of the law in all its aspects. It was divided between questions of opinion and questions of fact. The Council declined to answer the questions of opinion since “members would probably be divided upon them and no answer could have been given to them by the Council as such”; questions of fact were left to individuals “provided they were qualified to do so”. It was thought to be of no importance whether they were members of the Council or not.

Calling the Temple

It was only in 1896 that the Benchers of Inner and Middle Temple were asked to make arrangements for the establishment of a Telephone Call Station in the Temple. A reply from the Inns was not immediately forthcoming. By 1904 there was still no telephone connection between the Metropolitan County Courts and the Temple. A request that one be established was turned down by the judges on the basis that “financial difficulties” prevented them from proceeding further with this.

Those students …

In 1980, it was proposed that the Education Bill then going through Parliament include a provision to make grants compulsory for Bar students who intended to practice in this country. No parliamentary support was forthcoming. At the time, local authority grants, albeit discretionary, paid the fees of 90 per cent of UK students at the then Inns of Court School of Law. In 1897, the Inns were asked to allow barristers to use their libraries if they did not belong to the Inn where their chambers were located. Each Inn reacted differently. Overcrowding was a problem then, and was blamed on students, who use the libraries “not for any of the ordinary purposes for which the libraries are used by members of the Bar but in order to read the elementary text books”.

Associating unduly

By 1986, it was decided to allow chambers to produce brochures setting out the services offered by their members but lodged with the Senate who could ensure proper standards were maintained. Advertisements could be placed in publications circulating wholly or mainly among solicitors or others having direct access to counsel. This in itself was light years away from the rules agreed upon in 1956 which forbad a barrister to do or cause or allow to be done anything “with the primary motive of personal advertisement or anything calculated to suggest that it is so motivated”. The obvious example of professional misconduct was deemed to be “where the barrister seeks out the company of, or unduly associates with, solicitors and their clerks”. Photographs of a barrister could only appear in the press on suitable occasions such as taking Silk or standing for Parliament.

An expression of loyalty

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the General Council of the Bar “desire[d] humbly to tender to Your Majesty [the new Edward VII] the assurance of their dutiful sympathy with Your Majesty in the great loss which has befallen Yourself and the Empire by the death of their beloved Queen and to express their profound loyalty and attachment to Your Majesty’s Throne and Person and their prayer for Your long and prosperous Reign”. For those who imagine that such language was seeing its last flowering, those are exactly the words used in the message to the present Queen in 1952.

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.