Barristers need to grasp the opportunities offered by direct access for the public, which will also help them bid for legal aid contracts, the chairman of the Bar Council has urged.
Addressing Saturday’s annual Bar conference, Peter Lodder QC said the “critical importance” of the public access scheme – on which hundreds of barristers have already been trained – is underlined by the proposed legal aid cuts.
He said: “It combines the interests of the Bar and the interests of the consumer in maintaining the provision of cost-effective, high-quality legal services. Indeed, some clients who may be eligible for legal aid might prefer not to accept it because the contribution they are required to make is greater than the amount that would be charged by a public access barrister.”
Further, with private law money cases about to be taken out of scope of legal aid, those potential litigants who can pay something “will wish to use the limited resources they have in as effective a way as possible”, he said.
Mr Lodder said he had seen examples of public access from a wide range of barristers, from a chancery silk to an employment junior, and a wide range of family practitioners.
“One set conducted a targeted advertising campaign in magazines distributed in a reasonably affluent local area to promote ancillary (money) work in family,” he recounted.
The silk continued: “Cheaper models of delivery are relevant to all parts of the market in a time of economic pressure. A criminal set has established a programme for direct access in association with accountants and management consultants. They have found significant scope for both advice and representation in these cases. They are conducting joint seminars to bring these options to the attention of local industry and business.
“Another set has embarked on public access work in advising road haulage contractors – with the right approach, the possibilities are endless.”
Mr Lodder said the Bar Council is in talks with organisations which can assist with staff to set up and administer the structures chambers might need to deal with this work. “I think it likely that through developing public access practices, sets will begin to learn the systems and procedures that will enable them to bid for legal aid contracts.”
Meanwhile, at a session run by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) on its plans to introduce entity regulation, Colin Andress of the Bar Council’s young barristers committee warned that entity regulation would change the nature of independent, self-employed practice at the Bar “as chambers turn into full-service law firms”. He accused the BSB of taking forward reforms “for which there is very little demand from the profession”.
However, BSB chair Baroness Deech said its mission was to ensure the Bar continued as an independent profession and that if it did not introduce the option of entity regulation, the risk was that “barristers will drift off to join SRA-regulated entities”.
BSB member Patricia Robertson QC – who is leading the BSB’s work on entity regulation – added that they were creating a Bar-centric regime that mitigated some of the risks of SRA-regulated firms by not allowing them to hold client money and not permitting passive external investment.