The Bar Council’s agenda continues to be dominated by the uncertainty over where the reform of legal aid is going; the timetable has slipped again. Recently we learned that the Ministry of Justice will respond to the consultation by the middle of June. In the meantime we try to influence the direction of travel through meetings with ministers and officials. The closer we can get to the heart of this planning, the better our chance of demonstrating the real value (economically and professionally) of the Bar and ensuring that future plans recognise the importance and quality of what we bring to the Justice system.
I am continuing with Chambers visits to understand the Bar’s concerns about change and to hear from those sets which are already adapting to a changed environment. Many are finding new opportunities; in the past week I heard from a criminal practitioner on the North Eastern Circuit who has been invited to China to advise on product liability.
BSB entity regulation
On 28 April the BSB resolved to pursue entity regulation. This will provide those practitioners who wish to, with the chance to adopt new ways of working. Work on alternative business models and direct access opportunities continues, as we identify – and respond to – concerns about ProcureCo and the Code of Conduct. A new troubleshooting group has been set up. We shall be restructuring the “Prepare for Change” groups in preparation for the next round of MoJ consultation. With the continuing uncertainty we must maintain all options so as to be ready for whatever may come.
On the civil side, the CLAF group, led by Guy Mansfield QC, presses ahead. Europe Economics have been commissioned to examine alternative ways of funding the Civil Justice System so as to make up the deficit created by the restrictions on CFAs proposed by the Government. Presentation of their interim findings, before an invited audience, will take place in June at a joint Bar Council-UCL seminar to which Professor Dame Hazel Genn will contribute.
CPS - panels
This is a very important and highly charged issue; particularly for those who have invested a lot in developing their careers as prosecutors or who wish to do so. There are fears that the numbers for each category are too low, that good candidates will fail to get on to their chosen panel, may fail to come within the 5% cascade and so will lose their practices overnight. There is concern at the extension of the list across other prosecuting authorities. In addition the Council of Circuit judges (COCJ) has raised complaints touching upon the timetable, confidentiality of references and the assessment of in-house advocates.
We have been meeting the DPP and the Attorney General to press our concerns, and we are investigating what other options may be open to the Bar Council. Further attention to appeal processes will be necessary. Changes to the timetable and to reference procedures have already been made. I am aware that some judges may not participate. However, I hope that judicial evaluation remains an important part of this process – it is a vital component of QASA (formerly QAA) which will help to maintain the standards that we have always sought in all advocates appearing in the Crown Courts.
“Justice in Times of Austerity”
The Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding (responsible for Justice and Home Affairs), has agreed to deliver the key note speech at our event on 20 June, which is co-hosted by the Bar Council, Criminal Bar Association, Family Law Bar Association, Bar European Group and the European Circuit. There will be a panel discussion, to be moderated by Shami Chakrabarti, focusing on the challenges facing publicly funded practitioners and the need for policy makers to take a holistic approach to policy-making which involve proposals to cut public expenditure in the justice system. This will be a valuable opportunity to highlight our key messages to government. I hope that many practitioners will attend.
Finally over in India…
Over the Easter break I went to India with Paul Randolph of the Bar Council ADR committee, to open the new ADR Centre in Kolkata. India has been closed to foreign lawyers so this is an encouraging development for our arbitrators and mediators. It is interesting also because the initiative came from the Bengal Chamber of Commerce not the local lawyers; local businessmen recognise the adverse economic effects of a slow litigation process. This successful connection follows earlier visits made by Geoffrey Vos QC (as he then was) and Desmond Browne QC and the help given by members of the ADR committee in drafting their rules.
The backlog of cases in the Indian High Court is extraordinary. It has been calculated that at the present rate of disposal, if no new proceedings are commenced, it will take 325 years to clear. Contemplating a problem on this scale is difficult; playing a part in its resolution is a little easier!
Peter Lodder QC, Bar Chairman