Increased use of technology at the Bar and in the court system has left barristers as vulnerable to cyber-attacks as solicitors, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has warned.
The BSB said solicitors had already “fallen victim to a range of IT threats and cyber-attacks” and chambers rarely had their own IT resources or “specialist risk management expertise”.
The BSB said barristers were also at risk of failing to adapt to a changing legal services market due to “a lack of flexibility in terms of how barristers’ services are delivered”.
The regulator cited research saying that over the next five years, only 5% of barristers’ organisations planned to change fee structures, 7% their governance structure and 8% the way they received instructions.
“Allied to this risk, is the need to understand the impact on consumers and the justice system of having to deal with a vast amount of digital evidence and the ethical issues that arise for barristers in relation, amongst other things, to disclosure.”
In a consultation on its strategic priorities for 2019-22 , the BSB identified three “risk themes” facing the Bar, which it said would be reflected in in its strategic programme – working cultures and the professional environment inhibiting a strong, diverse and effective profession; innovation and disruption in the market creating threats and opportunities; and access to justice being threatened by lack of affordability and legal knowledge.
“The legal services market is facing a period of considerable change and adjustment, with the pace of change and extent of concurrent changes having the potential to cause significant disruption within the market,” it said on the second of these.
“Should service providers be unable to adjust to changing realities, our regulatory objectives could be put at risk.
“The introduction of significant technological reform of court proceedings will lead to changes in working practices that may lead to a number of risks to the delivery of barristers’ services.
“Greater expectation around technical competence could also place additional burdens on the Bar, particularly if clients are unable to access the required technology…
“Research suggests that greater use of technology within the courts has already created some barriers to the quality of advocacy, in particular potential difficulties involved in retrieving and managing information on digital systems, and the impact of the widespread use of electronic devices, such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones, upon the ways in which advocates communicate in the courtroom.”
In addition to the concerns about criminal advocacy outlined in a report  jointly commissioned with the Solicitors Regulation Authority earlier this year, the BSB said it has also seen an increase in complaints in relation to civil and family law.
These “could” be a reflection of legal aid cuts, it suggested. “These are the areas most severely affected by the cuts and the areas that give rise to the greatest numbers of complaints from litigants-in-person. However, this can only be a speculative assumption, as we do not have the detailed information to make a firm deduction.”
This background led the BSB to identify three broad strategic aims for the next three years: delivering risk-based, targeted and effective regulation; encouraging an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession; and advancing access to justice in a changing market.
It said: “Whilst the BSB does not see its role as promoting innovation, we must ensure that our rules and regulatory approach are flexible and adequate to both protect the public interest and enable innovation to take place in the market.”
Dr Vanessa Davies, director-general of the BSB, commented: “Our next strategic phase is very much about consolidating our recent policy initiatives such as reforms to the rules governing Bar training and focusing on our core role in regulating the Bar.
“But we also want to explore from our standpoint some important areas such as how technology is changing legal practice and the justice system, and the impact of other developments, including the changes to legal aid, on our statutory role.”