The Bar's Journal: A Journey

Gavin Purves explains why Counsel was established and charts its development


The media has invariably been critical of the Bar.  In the 1880's the high costs of litigation led The Daily Telegraph and The Times to campaign for fusion with solicitors.  The papers vilified the Bar as the strongest trade union in the world, supporting restrictive practices which they said denied access to justice.  Sound familiar?

 

A referral only profession 

The Bar Committee had been formed in 1883 in part as the professional body regulating the working etiquette of the Bar.  In 1888 it ruled that in contentious matters, a barrister had to be instructed by a solicitor before he could see a client.  In 1897 the rule was extended to non-contentious work when the committee ruled against a barrister wishing to advise a company without a solicitor.  It was, they ordained "an undesirable practice to introduce".  There had been no rule against direct access but the etiquette of acting only on a solicitor's instructions maintained the status of the Bar as a referral only profession, able as a result to charge a premium for its services.

 

An appetite for change  

Almost a century later, in October 1985 came Abse v Smith [1986] QB 536.  The parties were all MPs, principal among them Leo Abse, a veteran solicitor and the defendant, Cyril Smith.  Leonard J ruled that a solicitor had no right of audience in the High Court to read a letter of apology in a libel case: he was neither a barrister, nor a litigant in person and it was not an emergency.  The Court of Appeal upheld the decision.  The result was a renewed attack on the Bar as a self-important trade union built on restrictive practices, The Daily Telegraph and The Times again in the lead.

In Parliament Austin Mitchell MP among others campaigned vigorously for fusion, even threatening a Private Members' Bill.  An appetite for change was in the wind everywhere then, from Big Bang in the City to the print works at Wapping.

 

Meeting the challenges  

Legislative change was feared inevitable.  Reform of the legal profession had not been a manifesto promise of any Parliamentary party on which anyone had been invited to vote.  The Bar worried that to would overwhelm us.  We were certainly ill equipped to meet the challenges ahead either in terms of organisation or putting out case.  As the City was showing, the key was to lead reform but then the City had many friends in the press.  We needed a strategy.  Having our own press would be an essential part.

 

The Journal of the Bar

Luckily that summer quickly brought change from within.  Bob Alexander QC became the new Chairman of the Bar with a talent to lead reform from the front.  A new set up, the General Council of the Bar was on its way.  Robert Johnson QC set about replacing the old Bar News.  I had almost no experience of publishing when I spoke to Robert about producing a "Journal of the Bar".  Producing a synopsis, a title hadn't been as obvious as you might think.  There were other claims on "The Barrister".  I had even thought of "The Advocate", until the British Library , where publications are deposited by law, pointed out the title was in use, they said, "for an S&M journal".  Surprised that I hadn't noticed Sweet & Maxwell had started a journal devoted to advocacy, it was only when sent a copy I found it was a journal about S&M.

Counsel is launched

Our first edition appeared that October, with a leading article by Bob Alexander under the headline “Forward We Go!” Corny, but it caught the note of optimism necessary to embrace the ethos of change many still wanted to resist.

I wasn’t happy with this first effort: I seemed to have reproduced my old school magazine. It had been difficult to obtain suitable content. We had attracted some unsolicited contributions from barristers. Two were very good poems, one with a nicely drawn picture of a whale, many unfortunately libellous, reflecting in equal measure anxieties over change and the eccentricities of the Bar. Hardly, however, a Journal of the Bar. Bob Alexander had initially doubted the project. It was looking as if he might be right. We did however quickly invest in libel cover.


A radical change

Galvanised by this disappointment, I pursued a radical change of content and design. We produced a colour second edition featuring then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd on the cover. The design has endured. Bob now got warm letters of personal congratulation from Lord Hailsham, Michael Havers, then Attorney General and Tony Hetherington, then Director of Public Prosecutions. I got a full time assistant editor and a computer. Counsel became required reading in government departments and we were given access to their breaking stories. Everything changed almost overnight. We began our own typesetting using the then innovative software for desktop publishing. The print unions foolishly blacked us so we took our business elsewhere. Point made, only weeks later we were invited back to Headley Brothers, who still print Counsel today. 


Courting controversy

We started to lead content, commissioning members of the Bar to write articles later picked up in the newspapers and on radio. We actively courted controversy with critical articles, one memorably and inevitably on that hardy annual thorn, legal aid funding. The cartoon in a 1986 edition, subtly altering the legal aid franchise sign greatly upset the Law Society, then administering legal aid. Good, now we had their attention. The President  of the Law Society complained to Bob Alexander. His riposte importantly underlined the magazine’s independence. Counsel is published by the Bar Council, but it is the Journal of the Bar, not its governing body.


Advertising: by invitation only

Starting to sell advertising, we were soon approached by a private clinic treating sexually transmitted diseases, only then by a change in the law, permitted to advertise. They claimed to be seeing “an increasing number of barristers”. They probably wrote to other journals for accountants/surveyors/solicitors in similar vein. I refused the advert, inventing a fiction that our advertising was by “invitation only”, only to attract snide comment in the newspapers: surely barristers were not immune from STDs as well as claims for negligence? Unwittingly, the publicity given to “invitation only” attracted other advertisers, providing a cachet that was unexpected. 


Increasing the circulation

We were ambitious: Sweet & Maxwell ran a subscription service which increased circulation beyond the Bar. We ran a number of supplements and the successful outside trade exhibitions in 1986 and 1987 “Computers for the Bar”. Robert spoke to Sir Simon Hornby of WH Smith who agreed to stock Counsel if only we could produce a monthly edition.


Passing the baton

We had set out to produce a Journal of the Bar, by the Bar, about the Bar. We believed this required a practising barrister as editor and an editorial board of barristers. Nobody anticipated the burden of work required to keep up the momentum. With success it was soon apparent we would struggle with this model. The magazine had become a business with a substantial turnover. It was time for the founders to pass the baton.

From October 1988, becoming bi-monthly, and eventually monthly Counsel has been produced by a professional team at Butterworths (now LexisNexis), backed by a new and larger Editorial Board (now the Policy and Editorial Board). Even so, there were times since when the magazine would still struggle to provide worthwhile copy. One senior member of the Bar wrote in complaining it was as interesting as a grocery list. For a while I stopped reading it myself. Membership of the Editorial Board carried a substantial and thankless burden. They carried it valiantly, very often writing articles themselves. In the 1990s, Isabella Zornoza’s “restaurant review” of the café across the road from Willesden County Court was a memorable highlight.


The current magazine

25 years on Counsel is a vibrant, essential part of Bar Council activity and under the current editorial team with David Wurtzel as Consultant Editor, meets much of its original concept. But it has only endured thanks to the efforts of many over the years, not all of them from the Bar. Counsel is your professional forum. The Bar inevitably faces continuing challenges. If you have something to say, you should contribute. Those early years established that well written criticism and good ideas really are noticed, often welcomed by those in a position to drive change. It keeps them on their toes. Don’t leave it to others. They may be leaving it to you.

Gavin Purves, Swan House Chambers, is the founder of Counsel magazine and was Editor from 1985 to 1988

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