Robertson: artificial divide

Just 129 barristers have so far taken up the opportunity to conduct litigation since the restriction was removed in January, it has emerged.

Bar Standards Board (BSB) vice-chair Patricia Robertson QC said the “modest numbers” could be because barristers are unsure of the process, are uncertain whether the change would be good for their business, or because they lack the support systems in chambers to enable it to work.

Speaking at Saturday’s annual Bar conference, Ms Robertson said critics feared the relaxation would lead to fusion and “dilute the USP [unique selling point] of the bar”.

She argued that direct access had not done so and she could see no reason why conducting litigation would either. But she stressed “it is for the bar” to ensure that in taking up the opportunities provided by the BSB it does not “dilute the USP” and does retain trial skills.

The service offered by barristers, she said, is a “critical component” in meeting the need for people to get affordable legal advice. Allowing barristers to conduct litigation, she said, removed the “artificial divide” that had prevented direct access barristers from conducting all aspects of a lay client’s case – a distinction that clients “must have found baffling”.

The change enabled barristers to offer a “one-stop trial lawyer service” or to allow the client to deal with some aspects of their case and instruct a barrister as they need to “slice by slice”, Ms Robertson added.

“Solicitors have been able to compete with the bar doing advocacy since 1994 – 20 years on the Bar remains trial specialists. It is now time to let the Bar compete in providing a full service across the market,” she said. “I’m optimistic it will be good for the public and the Bar.”

Amanda de Winter, one of the first barristers to gain litigation rights and who set up direct access firm Barristers & Co, said the move was “a real opportunity for the Bar”.

“It is a gift to level the playing field in light of the advocacy work being done by solicitors,” she said, telling colleagues: “Just do it – it’s easier than you think.”

While there may be difficulties in a traditional chambers set-up, she said it was up to individuals to work out how to do it, but she said the application process was not too difficult, the BSB was helpful and insurance premiums remained unchanged.

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