Although Ken Clarke praised the efforts which the Bar has made to improve access to the profession, he expressed the view that too many are trying to practise at the self-employed Bar. I emphasised that the quality of applicants has never been higher but practitioners feel that the Government (and the Lord Chancellor) do not value the service they provide, often in very difficult circumstances, at the front line of public service. They feel abandoned.
The Lord Chancellor said that the Bar had to face changes in its markets and, in his view, chambers simply could not carry on as they used to. It was “cloud cuckoo land” to pretend that the world had not changed. He compared the current situation at the Bar to the run up to the Big Bang in the City in the mid-1980s. Many barristers appeared to him to be like ancient stockbrokers. The Lord Chancellor said that he was looking forward to seeing serious competition in order to maintain quality at the Bar. He expects that the Ministry of Justice’s consultation paper on competition in criminal defence services will be launched by the end of the year. Implementation of any such changes will probably take place in 2013, or possibly the following year. This is clearly not what the profession wishes to hear, but it is the view of the Government and it is better that you are aware of it.
At the time of writing, we are preparing for the political party conferences. Access to justice and the consequences of these dramatic cuts and changes will be an important theme. We will be lobbying widely to inform and engage MPs and peers of all shades for the next stages of the Legal Aid Bill.
The Bar Council has now received advice from Treasury Counsel confirming what we had suspected was the case: that referral payments, made or sought solely to decide who is instructed in a case, are an offence under the Bribery Act 2010. There are many tales of sets being offered work for a “kick-back”: quite properly, most refuse. But it is now clear that both offering and accepting work under these circumstances is a criminal offence.
I have raised this issue with the Lord Chancellor, and the Government has made public its commitment to ban referral fees in insurance claims. We have drawn their particular attention to the practice in publicly funded cases. The Government recognises the need to stamp out this abuse and we are pressing them to extend their investigation and take immediate steps to implement a ban.
The Bar Conference
Once again the profession has the opportunity to come together to discuss the issues currently consuming us at the annual Bar Conference, which is to take place on Saturday 5 November at The Hilton London Metropole hotel. By now you will have received notification of the programme. It will be an interesting and informative day, packed with sessions dealing with matters relevant to you and your practice. I strongly encourage you to attend. International work and diversifying your practice will be the focus of one such session, which leads me to some good news The success story of the Bar
Too often, this column is dominated by unwelcome news, but there are other, more positive stories to report. Over the past year, the Bar Council has developed even closer links with the City. There is an increasing appreciation of the Bar’s significant contribution to London’s position as a premier international legal centre and the income derived from legal services.
We formed the Bar and City Working Group in the spring. Since then, we have established positive relationships with TheCityUK and I have met the incoming Lord Mayor, who will place a particular emphasis on international legal work during his forthcoming term in office. There is substantial Government interest in what the Bar can do, and we have played a full part in the joint “Ministry of Justice /UKTI Plan for Growth: Promoting the UK’s Legal Services Sector”.
Of course, much of this work is focused on commercial work, but even those practitioners had to start somewhere. I am keen to expand opportunities across all sectors of the Bar. Most of the Bar Council’s foreign delegations this year have included barristers from sets with a history of publicly funded work, and they benefit greatly from our world-wide reputation for providing a high quality, cost effective and professional service. I encourage more of you to take part in these initiatives.
Peter Lodder QC, Bar Chairman