What does the future hold?

The new landscape of Alternative Business Structures; forming our own views on how our profession would best evolve; and increasing recognition of the economic value created by the Bar

Contributor
Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar

The first two months of the year have seen change and the promise of change.


For the first time the Bar has sought to introduce contractual terms to govern its financial relationship with solicitors, after years of negotiations. Not for the first time, the Lord Chancellor has announced a review of legal aid in criminal work.

Change is also affecting many other points in the profession: with the implementation of LASPO in April vast areas of work will come out of legal aid scope in Family, Housing, Immigration and Welfare law. The “Jackson” reforms and the introduction of the new Road Traffic Accident Portal will also bring about a fundamental shift in funding in general civil work.

The prospect of periodic accreditation as a regulatory imperative looms, closer for some than others but, in due course, for all.

An increasing number of Alternative Business Structures have been approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Perhaps the most well-known and ethical, the Co-operative Society, now employs literally hundreds of lawyers and is looking to provide fixed fee legal services to clients in family work, in the same way as it has expanded into banking, conveyancing and will writing. It sees its future role as providing a layer of legal services across the bottom of the pyramid, below solicitors and legal executives and below what a Director of Co-operative Legal Services, Christina Blacklaws, describes as the pinnacle of the pyramid: the Bar.

The Office of Fair Trading predicts an expanded market for legal services in which anything up to 300,000 “lawyers” perform very much more than the traditional roles of solicitors and the Bar. The OFT believe there is an untapped market for the enforcement of legal rights and claims at lower and fixed prices.

How and where will the Bar fit into this “brave new world”, if it continues to develop as predicted?

At a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Legal and Constitutional Affairs at the House of Lords looking into the future of legal services the Bar was criticised, I argued unjustly, for not adapting quickly enough.

Whether we are adapting quickly, or quickly enough, will always be a matter of subjective opinion. The more important question is, are we changing for the better, the worse or just for change’s sake?

The open debate we should be having is: “what do WE want our future to be?”

Recent cases highlight the need for specialist training, skill and expertise in advocacy in all serious criminal cases. How do we demonstrate that obvious need, as we engage with Government and the public? Is there a greater or lesser role for ADR in Civil and Commercial work? Should more of us be training as mediators and arbitrators? Likewise, should we look to encourage more use of mediation in Family work?

Does pupillage work in its current form? Will the Legal Education and Training Review go too far or not far enough? Does the silk system still work in the public interest and that of the profession? Does the QC Appointments panel choose the right people? Is the legal aid system working, in the public or the profession’s interest? Are there any other sources of funding, apart from Government? Is the chambers system still the best for the Bar? Is the Bar too big or not big enough? Will the proposed accreditation scheme maintain or even raise quality, if that is really necessary? Is continuing professional development anything more than a chore? Could we actually gain from proper further education? Do the Inns have a greater role to play in the practising lives of their members? On what basis should the Bar Council seek funding for the work it does on behalf of the profession? How do we regulate our regulators and ensure they are sufficiently accountable?

I believe that many or most of us will answer these questions without any difficulty, but don’t we have to answer them publicly to justify to the public why we do what we do?

As a profession we have every reason to be proud of our skill, integrity and expertise but do we need to make the public more aware of those qualities and skills? Do we actually need to regain that pride in ourselves and what we do? Is it time to re-vitalise and look forward?

This is a period of real opportunity to re-establish the Bar as an intrinsic and vital part of our democracy. The Government sees and values what we do in international litigation in terms of overseas’ earnings and multiplier effects. We must be able to make our true value known. We must not allow the argument to continue to be just about the cost of everything, the value of what we do is much more important.

Is it time to look at, and have an open debate within the profession about, all these and, no doubt, many more topics? Of course the Bar Council could set up more committees and answer these questions. But shouldn’t it be the profession itself that informs the debate and provides the answers?

I believe we should use the under-valued Bar Council AGM as a forum for that debate, continuing it as a rolling process throughout the year. That is what I am planning to do this year but I would be interested to know your views first. They really do matter as we seek to answer what the future holds for our profession.

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