Tradition is no bad thing

Value vintage! The best traditions of the Bar, finely aged, underpin our quality advocacy


I read with interest Anthony Heaton-Armstrong’s July 2019 Counsel article (‘45 years at the criminal Bar: A head above the parapet’). I share his concerns about the poor remuneration of the publicly funded Bar and, together with many others, I have fought hard this year to secure increases. It was, however, three other topics which struck me most: his concerns about judicial and advocates’ behaviour, and his perception that ‘there does not seem to be an effective system through which the few insightless offenders can be informally identified and gently reminded’; his concerns about digital working; and his regret for the death of QASA (Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates).

Poor advocacy and poor advocates should be rooted out, but QASA was not the answer. It was unlikely to have improved quality; quite the opposite. It set the level of competence far too low and potentially would have badged as ‘quality advocates’ those who were not. Poor advocacy has no place in our courts, but QASA would not have stopped it. It is down to those who practise advocacy to ensure that whatever tribunal is listening, it only hears quality advocacy. The Bar has traditionally been the ‘go to’ profession for the provision of high-quality advocacy. I very much hope it remains that way and that any future complaints about advocacy are not about barristers.

My concern about digital working is the potential it has for damaging the Bar. When I started at the Bar 30 years ago everybody returned to chambers at the end of the day to collect the next day’s work. This was a good thing. Senior and junior members of chambers mixed together. There was always a more senior member of chambers around to turn to for advice or to bounce an idea off, and they were always ready to help, no matter how busy they were. My worry in this digital age is that our chambers system will become redundant and members of the Bar will no longer go to chambers on a regular basis as briefs are delivered digitally.

The chambers system is one of the reasons why the Bar of England and Wales has been so successful for so long. I would like to make a plea to any of you who no longer go into chambers, to think about going in a little more often. Did you benefit from the collective wisdom of the more senior members of chambers and learn from the stories they told? Did mixing with your colleagues sometimes help you when you were worrying or feeling low? Are you a better barrister because of it? I would be amazed if anyone answered anything other than ‘yes’ to these questions. If you benefitted but now rarely go to chambers, spare a thought for the more junior members and pupils. How will they learn, as you did, if chambers are now empty?

This is a real concern that I have heard voiced when I have visited chambers this year. It used to be said that ‘the chambers that drinks together stays together’. It does not have to be alcohol (I am thinking about your wellbeing), but do go in to chambers. Do take time to talk to other members of chambers and do not let us lose one of the very best things about the Bar by letting it slip away, killed off by digital working.

Finally, judges’ and advocates’ behaviour. As you know, I am a big fan of our Circuit system, having been the Leader of the Midland Circuit. Whilst the Circuit Leaders no longer have the power they had in the past, the position remains an influential one. They are the people to whom members of the Bar can and traditionally have turned if they have a problem with a member of the judiciary. The Leaders have regular contact with the Presiders and Resident or Designated Judges, and they can raise issues informally about judicial conduct. I know a former Circuit Leader who used to sit in the public gallery of any judge of whom he had heard tales of bad behaviour. They would almost always express surprise that he was there and when asked why, his answer ‘I am just here to watch’ always got the message across and (at least for a short time) behaviour improved.

Specialist Bar Association leaders also raise these kinds of issues. In addition, the Bar Council’s Head of Policy, Equality and Diversity and CSR, Sam Mercer and the team, provide support for any member of the Bar who has a judicial conduct ‘issue’ and the new app TalktoSpot, together with the Bar Council’s advice on judicial bullying have been designed to help tackle this. Circuit Leaders can also have an informal word with a member of the Bar if a concern is raised, thus avoiding more formal proceedings.

Some may think that the Circuits play a more prominent role in the lives of barristers outside London or that they are only relevant to the criminal Bar. If people do think or say that, may I try to scotch those thoughts? The Circuit Leaders work hard for all members of the Bar. I do not want to single out any particular Circuit or Circuit Leader, but anyone on the South Eastern Circuit who does not think that the Circuit is for them should think again. I have worked with Mark Fenhalls QC, Kerim Fuad QC, Max Hill QC and Sarah Forshaw QC, all of whom put in a huge amount of time for the Bar, as does every Circuit Leader. I urge any member of the Bar, on whatever Circuit you practise, to join your Circuit and support its activity.

Tradition may be undervalued these days, but the best traditions of the Bar have developed over many years and I hope they will continue for many years to come, ensuring that the Bar remains the pre-eminent provider of high-quality advocacy services. 

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Richard Atkins QC

Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar