Eight commercial chambers have signed up to a Bar Council scheme to fund criminal law pupillages that would otherwise not be available because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
They are following the lead of Keating Chambers, which in September put up £20,000 to fund a pupillage that a criminal set has had to withdraw and incoming Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC said has been “instrumental” in gathering support from across the commercial Bar.
Giving his inaugural address, Mr Sweeting also fired a warning shot across the bows of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) over the extent to which it should look to regulate equality issues.
He said that 20 Essex St, Atkin Chambers, 3 Verulam Buildings, Matrix, Brick Court, 4 Pump Court, and Blackstone chambers have signed up to the scheme, while Quadrant Chambers was “meeting the same need by another route” – it has committed to four years of support for the Butterfield Fund on the Western Circuit, which enables pupillage in criminal sets/the publicly funded Bar which would not otherwise have taken place
He added: “Because this scheme has been set up at short notice, as an emergency measure, I know there are other sets which are also likely to join the scheme.”
Mr Sweeting explained that the Black Lives Matter movement has “given further impetus to our efforts to understand and address how these operate in our profession, particularly around the entry and progression of Black barristers”.
He said that to keep progress in this area “at the forefront of what we do”, Barbara Mills QC and Simon Regis – co-chairs of the Bar Council’s race working group – are to join the general management committee next year.
The QC – who practises from 7BR – revealed that he would also be joining the BSB’s reverse mentoring scheme, meaning from next year he will be mentored by a young Black barrister.
But he appeared to caution the BSB and the Legal Services Board to take more of a backseat on equality and diversity issues.
“Our regulators have also carried out and plan work in this area. We welcome all input, but the task of regulators is to set and enforce minimum acceptable standards. The role of the professions is to identify and promote excellence and best practice,” he said.
“That is after all the purpose of a profession. It is often a difficult boundary. But it is an important one in all areas if duplication and increased regulatory cost is to be avoided.
On other issues, Mr Sweeting said the Bar Council was looking to create “a forum for common lawyers in Europe to discuss the future” post-Brexit, with an event planned next year bringing together the Bars of the home countries with those of Ireland, Cyprus and the other common law jurisdictions in Europe.
Turning to the post-pandemic recovery of the courts, he urged wider consensus than just leaving it to senior judges.
“We now need to take a strategic view of what is to be retained from the working practices forced upon us by the pandemic. The clarity of view from the senior judiciary as to what should be considered a thing of the past is not always, in our experience, widely shared.
“It should be possible, without encroaching on individual judicial discretion, to have broad agreement or even guidance as to what the starting position should be in striking the balance between in-person and remote hearings.
“This should be part of a wider move to the use of technology within our justice system.”
Mr Sweeting kept up the Bar Council’s criticism of the lack of funding for the justice system, describing it as a false economy.
“Over the last 10 years, most European countries have increased their spending on their justice systems. We are among a handful where there has a been steady decrease and we comfortably lead the field in terms of the scale and depth of the cuts…
“Over much the same period, criminal barristers have faced reductions to fees of between 30% and 40%. Many are leaving the profession or moving into other areas of work. Advocacy in the criminal courts is increasingly being conducted by an ageing group of criminal barristers and solicitors.
“Introducing changes to court hours that will exacerbate that trend and may well prove to be discriminatory is not a solution and certainly not one that should be contemplated without clear evidence that it is both necessary and effective.”