Interview: Richard Atkins QC

Grilling Richard Atkins QC on his fears and aspirations for the year ahead, The Secret Barrister finds a crusader chair with an ambitious and overarching aim


Annual tradition dictates that the incoming Chair of the Bar is treated to a warm interview over a roaring fire, conducted by an impressive figure of legal renown, from which a tender portrait is painted over the pages of the New Year edition of Counsel, striking a tone somewhere on the spectrum between flattery and hagiography.

It’s a measure of Richard Atkins QC that he is happy to forego this softer form of soaping and submit instead to the harsher rubdown of barked written questions from an anonymous griping criminal hack. But this is perhaps no surprise to those who know him.

For all his formidable professional achievements and appointments – Called in 1989, taking Silk in 2011, Crown Court Recorder, Bencher of Gray’s Inn, Judicial College Tutor and Leader of the Midlands Circuit, to name but a few – the new Chair has no plans to sequester himself in an ivory tower, as he announced in his inaugural speech to the Bar Council. To the contrary, he is keenly attuned to the daily challenges faced by practitioners, and determined to travel the Circuits as an evangelist for demonstrating how the Bar Council can be a force for good in improving working life at the Bar.

Diversifying the Bar and increasing opportunities for applicants from non-traditional backgrounds is a longstanding driver. The son of a teacher and a businessman in the domestic appliance repair trade, Richard describes his rise to Chair of the Bar as ‘probably as much a surprise to me as it is to you’. He found himself drawn to the law almost by default:

‘I studied history, geography and economics at A level and decided that I did not wish to study any of those subjects at university. Back in 1983 the only other options seemed to be law or accountancy. Law seemed to me to be boring, but accountancy seemed to be really boring, so I ended up choosing law. Not a very auspicious start, but at least it set me on my way!’

Since then, he has helped to launch the Bar Council ‘Speakers for Schools’ project, is involved in the Bar Council’s ‘Speak Up for Others’ programme and chairs the St Philips Chambers and Aston University annual ‘Access to the Law and the Bar’ conference. He has also acted as a judge in the Bar Council National Schools Mock Trials Competition, and is eager to encourage wider participation in outreach schemes:

‘I would like to see more members of the Bar get involved with speaking at schools and universities and helping with the national Bar Mock Trials Competition. It is very easy to convince yourself that you have no spare time to promote such worthy initiatives, or to think that you will do it “next year”. The reality is that everyone can spare a few hours if they put their minds to it, and I would encourage them to do so. I can assure everyone that you will get far more out of it than you put in.’

Does he fear, however, that the pay and conditions for juniors undertaking publicly funded work threatens to undo the progress made in recent years on opening up and diversifying the profession?

‘Yes. Students now leave university with eye-watering amounts of debt. The cuts to legal aid rates and the reduction of the amount of available work, particularly in the criminal field, has meant that many young practitioners have turned away from publicly funded work or have left the Bar. We are in danger of reaching a position where only those with private income can afford to practice at the publicly funded Bar. The recently announced increases in criminal fees is very welcome, although it is, to an extent, a sticking plaster and we will be pressing the government for more money during my tenure.’

The problems facing those starting out in publicly funded law are firmly on the radar:

‘I think that there is more competition now than when I started and less work. I think that the pressure is greater and fees lower.’

"His plate is piled high, with the LASPO review, Brexit, LSB consultation, wellbeing and court reform... just a selection from the menu, but his overarching aim in a single word: happiness"

The spectre of so-called Flexible Operating Hours (FOH) looms large over family and civil practitioners, and Richard is alive to the risks that this scheme poses – not only to working lives but to the established problems with equal representation:

‘I do fear that this initiative will have an effect on diversity, as the evidence to date suggests that women are more likely to have to shoulder the burden of getting children to school and of other caring responsibilities which make FOH such a problem. That being said, there are many men who also shoulder these burdens. It is in my opinion a wider wellbeing issue.’

He does, however, find grounds for quiet optimism:

‘The Ministry of Justice clearly listened to the Bar’s concerns on FOH in relation to the criminal courts so there is hope that they will listen to the concerns raised in respect of civil and family courts. As I said in my inaugural address to the Bar Council, those who participate in the pilots, or decline to participate, must provide feedback to their Circuits, Specialist Bar Associations and Bar Council representatives. We need to provide an evidence-based response to the pilot schemes.’

So is the government finally listening to the concerns of the Bar?

‘I think that there has been a problem with how governments in the recent past have valued the justice system. I am not sure, though, that this applies to the current Ministry of Justice team, who I believe are more understanding. I think the real problem lies in convincing the Treasury that every pound spent on justice saves far more elsewhere. We need to keep pressing home the message that justice is important. The recent “Justice Week” was very well received as were the Bar Council’s “Brexit Papers”. We need to keep pressing home the message, as we did in Justice Week, that in a civilised society, the rule of law and access to justice are vitally important.’

One of the core missions of the Bar Council’s strategic plan is to champion the rule of law and access to justice. We are just over two years on from the ‘Enemies of The People’ debacle, but in an increasing polarised political society, unity between warring factions can still be found when it comes to hostility towards the legal system. Does Richard worry about the tone of public discussion when it comes to the judiciary? Having regard to the rhetoric and actions of politicians across the world, is the rule of law in danger?

‘I am less worried now than I was. I believe that in David Gauke we have a Lord Chancellor who understands his role and will defend the judiciary, should another “Enemies of the People” situation ever arise. We must not, though, be complacent, as recent history has shown that Lord Chancellors do not seem to stay in post terribly long. I was immensely proud of the Bar Council for the motion it passed when the “Enemies of the People” issue arose last time and we must constantly promote the rule of law message. There are obviously problems in other areas of the world, but the work of the Bar Human Rights Committee and the Bar Council’s International Committee helps promote the rule of law globally.’

There have, I observed, been suggestions from criminal practitioners that the Bar has historically been too accommodating in its dealings with the Ministry of Justice, and that the recent successful judicial review of litigators’ fees is an example of solicitors treading where the Bar fears to. Have we been guilty of ‘rolling over’?

‘The issues that solicitors had with the LGFS [Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme] were very different from those the criminal Bar had with the AGFS [Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme]. In my opinion, judicial review was not an option for the Bar. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back, maybe we should have taken a different stance on occasions. That having been said, we have now secured an extra £23m with a concession from the Lord Chancellor that “there is scope to further improve the way criminal advocates are paid so that we better reflect work done in an evolving and modernising justice system”. I have had dealings with the Ministry of Justice for a number of years and I am of the view that the relationship we currently have with them is far better and more likely to produce positive results than for many years. I do not, though, want anyone to think that that is a sign of weakness. I shall be pressing the case for increased funding across all areas of the publicly funded Bar during 2019.’

As emphasised in his inaugural address, Richard is conscious of the attention that the Bar Council has afforded to the multiple problems with criminal practice and fees, and moved to assure the audience that the Bar Council will continue to ‘do a huge amount of work for other practice areas’. His plate is piled high, with the LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) review, Brexit, the Legal Services Board’s consultation on Internal Governance Rules, wellbeing and the court reform programme just a selection from the menu, but the overarching aim for the next 12 months can be summarised in a single word: happiness.

‘My main aim, as I said in my inaugural address, is to make the Bar a happier place. That means – amongst other things – securing proper funding for the justice system. Not simply for legal aid, but also investment in the court estate for the benefit of all who practise at the Bar. I also want to see identity cards rolled out across all courts so that members of the Bar no longer have to suffer the daily indignities when entering the courts that only really run with our assistance. Lastly, I wish to educate the Bar as to what it is that the Bar Council does for them (a huge amount in my opinion), increase the uptake of payment of the voluntary Bar Representation Fee, which is what funds most of the representational activities that the Bar Council undertakes and banish forever the question “What has the Bar Council ever done for me?”

The Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specialising in criminal law and blogs at thesecretbarrister.com.

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The Secret Barrister

Winner of Independent Blogger of the Year in the 2017 and 2016 Comment Awards, the Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specialising in criminal law and blogs at thesecretbarrister.com.