Bar regulator “struggling to keep pace” with rising volume of work

Neale: Quality of decision-making remains high

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has admitted it is struggling to keep pace with a rising volume of incoming reports, authorisations and disciplinary cases.

As a result its business plan for the upcoming year has been slimmed down to focus on these core functions.

The BSB has also set its budget for 2021/22 at £11.7m and is projecting a £2m deficit, which will be funded out of reserves, supplemented by a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme loan.

The report of chief executive Mark Neale to the BSB’s virtual board meeting yesterday heard that the organisation had failed to meet seven of 10 service standards for turning round work, meaning there are backlogs of reports and authorisation requests.

For example, only 37% of cases referred by the frontline contact and assessment team (CAT) to another team for regulatory action are accepted or referred back to CAT within two weeks, against a target of 80%.

Similarly, just 39% of investigations of allegations of breaches of the BSB Handbook are being completed, and a decision taken on disposal, within 25 weeks of being accepted. The target is 80%.

However, Mr Neale said the BSB’s independent reviewer had confirmed that the quality of decision-making “remains high”.

He added that the regulator has “largely delivered” the major initiatives set out in its 2020/21 business plan, while also undertaking unexpected Covid-related work, such as moving the central examinations online last summer and analysing the impact of the health emergency on the profession.

Mr Neale wrote: “The health emergency has certainly contributed to this. Illness and the need to juggle work and caring responsibilities has, understandably, reduced the productivity of many colleagues…

“We have also come to the conclusion that the new structure put in place in the autumn of 2019 lacks the resilience needed to deal with unexpected demands.

“We recommend some modest strengthening of capacity to address this lack of resilience. We are also taking other steps to improve our productivity.”

These include a new case management system, streamlining processes, and potentially taking on short-term resource to reduce the backlogs.

The business plan was also approved at the meeting, with the BSB saying the delivery of the core regulatory functions “must take priority”.

As a result, the BSB intends to focus resources on fewer projects, “only deploying resource to those interventions that are a high priority and will make a substantial impact in mitigating risks to the regulatory objectives (and only where we have the capacity to do so)”.

Projects where the BSB has control over the timetable – such as the review of the code of conduct – will be slowed down.

The regulator is budgeting for total income of £9.7m – £7.8m of which will come from practising fees – and spending £11.7m, about £150,000 less than the current year.

Projects that will be done in the next year include:

  • Delivering “a robust regulatory approach” to tackle bullying, discrimination and harassment within the profession;
  • Working alongside the profession to ensure there remain sufficient opportunities for students to find pupillages, in light of the substantial fall in the number available last year due to the pandemic;
  • Reviewing the role and effectiveness of the Bar course aptitude test;
  • Consulting on the appropriate scope of regulation of barristers’ non-professional life;
  • Working with the Bar Tribunal and Adjudication Service to review the sanctions guidance which is used by disciplinary tribunals; and
  • Scoping out work in relation to regulating barristers in their early years of practice to assure their competence and their continuing professional development (CPD) – “work which amongst other things may result in future years in changes to CPD for newly qualified practitioners”.

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