Events commenced with a tour of the Rolls Building, introduced by Mr Justice Christopher Clarke and Chairman of the Bar, Michael Todd QC. Fittingly for a global audience, Sir Christopher described the “bee-line” to the Rolls Building of international parties, especially those from “countries east of Berlin ending in ‘–stan’”. Unhappy memories of litigating in a St Dunstan’s “broom cupboard” were banished, in what we were told is by far the largest business court complex in the world. The Rolls Building’s preparedness for the much-heralded move to paperless trials was explained by Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) director, Dave Thompson, although bundles marked A-Z (and beyond) flanking the audience spoke to an ambition yet to be completely fulfilled.

Having seen its physical location in the Rolls Building, the functioning of the software used in the substantially paperless Berezovsky case was later demonstrated, including excerpts from the questioning of Mr Berezovsky by Lord Sumption (who also appeared at the conference).

Formal opening

The formal opening of the conference took place at the Supreme Court in Parliament Square, which delegates were invited to tour. The tour began in the library where, over the stairway, this inscription can be found:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

The opening addresses took place in the crowded Court 1 and adjacent screening room. We were welcomed by Lord Phillips, President of the Supreme Court, who shared a brief history of the establishment of the court.  A series of addresses by judges of superior courts provided delegates with do’s and don’ts of advocacy in such a forum. We heard from Australia (Chief Justice Robert French), South Africa (Justice Edwin Cameron) and the UK(Baroness Hale). Themes for the conference were set – qualities of good advocacy including brevity (good news for the reader) and personal integrity (you can rely on this report), the need for mutual respect between the bench and counsel, and ultimately the role of the law in mediating social change.

From the Supreme Court we made our way to a reception at the House of Lords. This was a particular highlight for the antipodean delegates, who were keen to experience the history and tradition of Westminster. We congregated in the Cholmondeley Room for drinks and canapés. The balcony assured us of excellent views of the Thames. The only speech was a very short one by our host, Stephen Hockman QC – co-chair of the International Council of Advocates and Barristers. He thanked Baroness Deech, chair of the Bar Standards Board for her support of the function and promised all present that there would be no other unnecessary speeches, a promise upon which he delivered.

Saturday began with the Lord Chief Justice’s keynote address on the court’s expectations of the advocate, which served as a timely reminder of the fact that our judges still view oral advocacy as the key discriminator, even when 200-page documents bear the title “skeleton argument”, and of the importance of those decisive adjustments made on their feet by skilled advocates who “respect the moment”. Some may also take Lord Judge’s address as proof that every good speech should contain at least one extended sporting analogy.

Advocacy master class

As for the rest of Saturday’s programme, Desmond Browne QC, the conference’s programme director, and Stephen Hockman had secured a stellar cast of speakers. A highlight was the session on advocates of the past, in which advocates of today championed Cicero, Erskine, Curran and F. E. Smith. It would be unwise to draw too literal a lesson from these forebears; each of the lectures came with a “do not try this at [your] home [court]” health warning, particularly the latter three’s talent for the judicial put-down, but their championing by Dr Michael Crennan SC, Lord Sumption SCJ, Michael Collins SC and Michael Beloff QC was an advocacy master class in itself. Our vote, in this unofficial contest between historical advocates, went to John Philpot Curran for the feat of delivering a 15,000 word address from 30 words of notes, and for much more besides.

For inspiration, though, one needed to look no further than the session on advocacy against the odds. Sir Sydney Kentridge QC chaired talks by advocates from Northern Ireland, Pakistan and Zimbabwe and gave some of his own recollections of apartheid in South Africa. The fact that one scheduled speaker, Beatrice Mtetwa, had remained in Zimbabwe to represent before a hostile court some 29 political dissidents arrested and detained without bail, spoke eloquently to her commitment to her clients. For those of us for whom advocacy against the odds is a weak case before a slightly impatient judge, it was humbling to hear first-hand from counsel who, despite assault and imprisonment, continue fearlessly to represent those whom the government opposes.

World Bar Conferences are premised on the idea that much may be gained from the discussion of “difference and similarity” between the various referral Bars and this was further explored in the specific context of prosecution advocacy in various tribunals. More generally, in the tea breaks and lunches hosted by Inner Temple, there was plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast experiences across national boundaries. Such conversations continued in the grand environment of Middle Temple Hall, at Saturday’s gala dinner, at which the Attorney General – perhaps with the more florid advocacy of the past in mind – put the case for emotive submissions as a reminder that the law is, ultimately, about the relationships between us.

Sunday’s focus was more practical. The sessions started with “advocacy training: what the young Bar really needs”. It became apparent that the issues for the young Bar of England and Wales are replicated in other jurisdictions: disproportionately low fees for those undertaking publicly funded criminal work, and limited opportunities for real-life advocacy on privately funded briefs. David Nicholls, chairman of the young barristers’ committee, drew an analogy between counsel and surgeons. Young barristers hold themselves out as experts in advocacy when often they only get to run a handful of cases each year. Such a level of practical experience would not be tolerated in a surgeon proposing to carry out complex surgery. There was discussion about whether ongoing advocacy training should be mandatory to seven years’ call. One idea floated was that young barristers should be required to attend court with their pupil supervisors (or mentors as they are known elsewhere) and engage in discussion about the cases so that they understand the strategy. Retired judges could also observe young barristers in court and provide feedback. This would make the training and experience of young barristers more akin to the experience of trainee surgeons.

Fiery sessions

The fieriest session by far was that on the imminent Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (Crime). It was said to be a response to advocates accepting instructions outside their competence. With both the regulator and the criminal Bar represented, there were bound to be contrasting views. And there were. If ever in trouble, we most definitely would want Max Hill QC in our corner. Of greatest concern to the criminal Bar is the accreditation of a category of advocate known as “plea only advocates”, who in the view of the criminal Bar, will not be qualified to advise on alternatives for clients. The regulator remains firm that this category will remain within the scheme for the first two years. All advocates should observe its operation carefully as quality assurance will in due course be extended to other areas of practice and also to other jurisdictions.

Choral Matins was held at 11.30 am in the Temple Church. After hearing the magnificent choir singing, inter alia, Zadok the Priest, we were treated to a thought-provoking address by Justice Crennan of the High Court of Australia. Her theme, derived from the readings of the day, was “the way of truth”, “the light of justice” (which she urged us to keep shining) and “the sun of understanding”.

After drinks in the Master of the Temple’s garden, and lunch, the delegates reassembled for the final sessions of the conference. Advocacy at public inquiries allowed us an insight into the challenges of inquiries such as the 7/7 London bombings inquest, the Malaysian inquiry into the death of Teoh Beng Hock, and the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and the 2011 Queensland floods inquiry. This was followed by ruminations on the future of advocacy and the continuing necessity of an independent Bar.

Delegates left the conference feeling renewed and inspired as to the role they play, not just as members of their own local Bars, but as actors in a broader common law universe, joined together in the “single garment of destiny”. Thank you to the organising committee, to the Bar Council, to the Inner and Middle Temples, and to Freshfields who allowed the use of their conference facility for the conference sessions themselves. The next World Bar Conference will be in Auckland, New Zealand (where the sailing is excellent). We highly recommend that you put 21 April 2014 in your diaries now…

Jane Treleaven, the Victorian Bar and Sa’ad Hossain, 1 Essex Court, Temple