Uncommon counsel (1): Barristers and the City

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Last year, a local issue awoke the Bar’s interest in the City of London. Gregory Jones QC urges barristers to dust off their voting rights and reclaim their voice in the City – on the doorstep of the Inns of Court

Barrister politicians are nothing new. Lincoln’s Inn alone has produced 16 British prime ministers. 


We are familiar, too, with Bar presence along the benches in both Houses of Parliament and many barristers also serve as local councillors in their home towns. But less well known are the practising barristers who serve as ‘common councilmen’ on the doorstep of the Inns of Court in the City of London. They represent the wards where many barristers work and in which many chambers are located. There are currently four of us who practise at the Bar representing wards within the City of London with a Bar presence and who serve on Common Council. All of us are independents. Unlike local councillors elsewhere, we receive no financial allowances.

Wards and voting rights in the City of London

The City of London, often known as ‘the Square Mile’, is a city and county within London. The local authority for the City is the City of London Corporation. The Corporation is unique in a number of ways. The Corporation is headed by the Lord Mayor of the City of London and ruled by the ancient Common Council which comprises the Mayor, aldermen and common councilmen. The day-to-day work is done by officers under delegated powers and supervised by a series of committees of councillors.

The City has a resident population of about 7,000 but over 300,000 people commute to and work there, mainly in the financial services sector. As a consequence of this extraordinary demographic, the City has a unique system of voting. Divided into 25 wards, each ward elects a number of common councilmen (on four-year terms) and a single alderman for each ward (for a six-year term). Those with a business tenancy in the City are entitled to a vote. The wards vary in size considerably. Every barrister with a full tenancy within chambers in the City is entitled to appear on the electoral role. (Other types of businesses can nominate a number of employees relative to the size of the business as voters.) This voting right is in addition to any right to vote in local elections in the Borough in which you may live. Residents in the City also get a vote.

The legal profession forms a major component of the northern and western sides of the City, especially in the Temple and Chancery Lane areas where the Inns of Court are located, of which two – Inner Temple and Middle Temple – fall within the City of London boundary within the ward of Farringdon Without, which is the ward I represent as a common councilman. It is the largest ward in the City. The other ward, with a smaller but nonetheless significant barrister constituency, is Castle Baynard which lies immediately to the east of the Temple.

What does the Corporation of London do?

The City has the usual local authority powers such as planning, licensing and housing. The development of high buildings around the Gherkin known as the ‘eastern cluster’ presents real challenges for those of us who sit on the Planning and Transportation Committee. But the City also has some really unusual responsibilities for a local council, such as being a police authority and a port authority, as well as being responsible for the Heathrow Animal Reception Centre, the Live Animal Border Inspection Post for Heathrow airport! It is also has responsibilities and ownerships beyond its boundaries such as Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath. Common councilmen and aldermen sit on the governing committees of all these bodies, as well as being appointed to external bodies such as governors for the City of London Schools and the Honourable the Irish Society. The latter society is now a charitable organisation in the City and Northern Ireland which retains fishing and navigation rights in Northern Ireland as well ownership of the ancient walls of Derry/Londonderry.

The Corporation’s interests are more than just local. It maintains its own representative in Brussels in order to further the UK’s economic interests. It also carries out major state functions such as hosting state banquets for visiting heads of state. The Lord Mayor hosts important dinners including, of course, the famous ‘Lord Mayor’s Banquet’ at which the prime minister of the day addresses the City and the country on the state of the country, as well as, the Bankers’ Dinner at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer gives the famous ‘Mansion House speech’ on the state of the economy.

The City of London is responsible for the upkeep of the bridges across London. The City was prudent to establish a maintenance and repair fund for the City bridges. When the size of this fund outgrew its original purpose, the City set up the City Bride Trust. Common councilmen sit on the Trust which currently awards around £20m per year to charitable causes in London; such grants helping women who have experienced domestic violence as well as funding youth and social inclusion and education programmes.

Tudor Street: the Bar awakes?

Despite the Bar and bench being highly active in the courts owned and run by the City of London, such as the famous Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, overall the Bar has not always participated greatly in the elections of the City. It appears, for example, that there has been only one barrister to become Lord Mayor of London. And sadly, Sir Gavyn Arthur, former barrister and judge who was Lord Mayor of London in 2002, died in 2016.

In recent years, the voter turn-out for the main barrister ward of Farringdon Without has been low at 10%, with an even lower percentage amongst the barrister voters. There are no doubt good reasons for this. Barristers are busy people and rightly focused on delivering a quality service for their clients, and the City could, in my view, have done more to engage with the Bar in particular. Barristers are ‘time poor’ and are also foremost in giving public service to a range of bodies, including of course, their Inns of Court. Indeed, until I was persuaded to stand in 2013, I had never voted in a City election in the 20 years previously.

But the Bar deserves a voice in the City: both in a general sense, since the prosperity of the country and the City is built on the rule of law; as well as more specifically, in ensuring that its interest are not prejudiced. Furthermore, those of us who represent the ward need also to be accountable to our electorate for what we say publicly as common councilmen for our ward and what we do.

Last year, a local issue awoke the Bar’s interest in the City. The speedy (some might say rushed) opening of the super cycle highway by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson resulted in Transport for London and the City jointly proposing restrictions to the access to the Temple via its Tudor Street entrance. After strong and well-founded concerns expressed by Temple residents, chambers, and the Inns over the safety and convenience of the new arrangements, we were able to overturn a Sub-Committee decision to close the junction of Tudor Street and New Bridge Street.

Using a little known procedural provision, we were able to get that the decision reversed by the full Common Council due to insufficient consultation and failure to consider properly the impact of the closure. Since then myself and my fellow barrister councilman, Emma Edhem, got ourselves elected to the City’s Streets & Walkways Sub-Committee and have been working with colleagues to find a long-term solution. Recently, the sub-committee chairman announced that agreement in principle had been reached between Transport for London, the Inns and the City to change the new arrangements so that in future the vehicles would be able to egress from Tudor Street controlled by traffic lights turning left and right onto New Bridge Street. Bridewell Place is to be returned to one way with ingress from New Bridge Street.

The barrister councillors were a key factors in achieving that change. The right to vote as a business tenant is a unique privilege. There will be at least one set of City elections in 2017, if not more. I would encourage all those barristers who possess the right to vote to exercise it. Most barristers find it more convenient to get a postal vote which can be obtained by filling in the form on the City of London website. But if nothing else, any barrister on the City electoral role of the City is also entitled to the Freedom of the City and can then join the charity sheep drive each September across London Bridge.

Uncommon counsel (2): ‘Barts, butchers and barristers’, a short history of Farringdon Without, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Counsel

Contributor Gregory Jones QC, Francis Taylor Building, Temple, is Common Councilman for the Ward of Farringdon Without

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Gregory Jones QC

Gregory is a practising barrister at Francis Taylor Building, Temple. He is Common Councilman for the Ward of Farringdon Without (see http://gregoryjonescc.net for ward details).