The straightforward chairman

Counsel’s David Wurtzel interviews the incoming Chairman of the Bar, Maura McGowan QC, about her new role

The first question I asked the 2013 Chairman of the Bar, is why she wanted to be chairman. Maura McGowan QC’s answer was a modest one. It is a good idea to have a change between civil and publicly funded practitioners, and it is good that “every so often” a woman does the job. It is in fact 15 years since the first woman chairman, Heather (now Lady Justice) Hallett. Maura adds, “I’d like to think I would make things better”.


Maura’s Background

Maura is equally straightforward when describing her own background. She was born in London to Irish parents, and was privately educated until her father died when she was 9, and her mother took the young family to live in Leeds. There she attended a school which more than once she described as ‘extraordinary’: a direct grant grammar school with a nun as headmistress and an ethos that the girls could do anything, “so long as we had the talent and ability to do it.” After studying law at Manchester University she was Called to the Bar by Middle Temple. Thanks to her extremely helpful sponsor, the late John Slater, she did a first six month’s pupillage with Jeremy Gompertz and a second six months (through Tony Arlidge) with Richard Sutton. Pipped to the post for a tenancy in those chambers by two who went on to become leading Silks themselves, she joined 3 Hare Court (now 2 Bedford Row) on condition that she did family law. That was “women’s work then”.

Nevertheless she was able to specialise in crime. She described as a “baptism of fire” for a new Silk a 12-month trial at Preston Crown Court. She has appeared in major public inquiries (e.g., the Victoria Climbie case) and, again transcending gender expectations, defended in a number of Manchester gangland trials where she was the only woman QC. This was “great work”, “fun cases to do, hard work but thoroughly enjoyable”. I asked if there were something in her career of which was she was particularly proud and she replied, “everything, the good and the bad. Proud I’ve done it and survived and got this far”. She sits as a Recorder now at the Old Bailey, and as a deputy High Court Judge doing Administrative Court work.

Aims as Chairman

Turning to her aims for this year, what she most wants to address is the issue that “the majority of barristers have dissociated themselves from what is going on around them”. There is not just a lack of interest. When her practice takes her on Circuit she regularly encounters people who no longer have any interest and very little faith in what the Bar Council is doing. The problem is most acute amongst those who do publicly funded work (“the commercial Bar by comparison is thriving”). It is they who suffer an “increasing amount of despondency” and have “lost the will”. Maura cites the figure that in the recent elections in the Criminal Bar Association only 8% of the membership voted. One might add that fewer than 1400 self-employed barristers voted in the recent Bar Council elections and that apart from officers and members of the Bar Council, not a single barrister attended the 2012 Annual General Meeting of the Bar.

She concedes that the Bar Council could do more. She is determined that it should become more proactive notwithstanding that this is difficult because so much time is spent fire-fighting and reacting. She regrets the breakdown in communication between those who attend Council meetings and their constituencies and “that will have to be improved”:  Bar Council members without a recognisable constituency should be “pushed, cajoled, bullied” into “making sure that they bridge that gap and they get the message out” and back.  At the very least, she would like to see “a change in attitude”.

“I’d like to see people engaged again” she declared. There was a huge amount that people can do, in advocacy training and in pro bono (both the actual work and in raising funds to support it).  Practitioners should vote, get involved, support the committees and join their SBA or Circuit. It was a matter of “having confidence in what we are doing and in ourselves”. She was realistic enough to volunteer that there is unlikely to be more public money for fees in the immediate future, but “if every single practising member of the Bar actually tried to play a part in influencing political will and public perceptions, then we would achieve more.”  She was concerned that Government ministers no longer said that they supported the continued existence of the independent, referral Bar. Instead, there seemed a willingness to “dismantle it”, say, through the use of Alternative Business Structures.

She is conscious of the limits of what a chairman can do but she is equally clear about her own views.

While recognising that the numbers of those allowed to do the BPTC is a result of the Office of Fair Trading’s ruling on the subject, Maura feels strongly about the disparity between the numbers of students and the decreasing numbers of pupillages. The letter which is sent to each prospective student warning them about the realities of getting into the Bar will now go out in her name. She finds the present system to be “unfair”. She cannot see that it operates in the interest of the students or the public. She would like to see students receive a “provisional offer” of pupillage before they start the BPTC so that those who do not get one would be “better informed about their prospects”. Achieving this would be an act of persuasion viz. chambers and the Bar Standards Board, but it “should not be beyond the wit of a large number of highly intelligent people”.

She is equally committed to seeing advocacy training and re-training extending beyond the new practitioner course. I reminded her that a number of her predecessors have cited this as a goal but so far there has been no material progress in making this happen. She feels though that at least one Inn is very interested and if the Inns did deliver such training, it will revitalise them and bring them back into contact with those “who do not come through the door any more”. The Inns are changing, she stated, and so is COIC (Council of the Inns of Court.) “Everything is going to have to become more businesslike” which, nostalgically speaking, is “a sad but necessary fact”.

She is also concerned about the effects on access to justice when LASPO comes into effect in April. She praised those who have been helping the Civil Justice Council to draft leaflets and other information for self-representing litigants: “we have to help people struggling through without legal aid”.

I asked about the relationship with the Bar Standards Board. Maura is well aware of the opinions expressed during the debate over QASA. She recognised that the BSB is “entirely independent from the Bar Council”; they regulate, and “we have a close and good working relationship with them in which there are disagreements”. The BSB is under a duty to consult, and it is proper for consultees to say, “We don’t like it”; “that is the way these things should work”.

I asked her whether there was something she had always longed to achieve and now perhaps could, as Chairman. “Before Spring 2010 I had never thought I would be chairman. Since then so much has changed and is changing, that long term plans are virtually impossible. I want to see a profession that continues a long tradition of working to support the rule of law in the public interest. I want to see people continue to work in a challenging, demanding and vitally important field. To be able to work with confidence, dignity and public respect shouldn’t be too much to expect”.

David Wurtzel is Consultant Editor of Counsel

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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.