Complaints about the law officers not standing up to the government over potentially breaking international law contributed to a huge increase in reports made to the Bar Standards Board (BSB) in the last year.
Yesterday’s meeting of the BSB’s full board heard that reports made to the regulator were averaging around 200 a month last spring but rocketed to three times that number in the autumn before peaking at 800 in February 2021.
However, director general Mark Neale said this rise “has not translated into a similar increase in cases referred to investigation, indicating that the great majority of reports do not warrant investigation”.
He told members that the BSB had received “multiple reports running into the hundreds”, citing as an example complaints made about the law officers – at the time, Attorney General Suella Braverman and Solicitor General Michael Ellis – when the government admitted that the then Internal Markets Bill would breach international law.
He did not cite any other flashpoints, although the social media storm around barrister Jon Holbrook over his “stroppy teenager of colour” tweet erupted at the end of January; at the time plenty of Twitter users talked about reporting him to the BSB.
Mr Holbrook has confirmed that he is now under investigation by the BSB.
Mr Neale said improvements to the BSB’s website and “the relative ease in reporting” had also contributed to the increase, which overall meant that the volume of complaints doubled over the business plan year to 31 March 2021.
As we reported in March, the BSB is missing most of its key performance indicators (KPIs) for dealing with incoming reports, authorisations and disciplinary cases. Yesterday’s meeting heard that it was only hitting two of the 12 KPIs.
Mr Neale said this was because of both the increasing volume of work and the impact of Covid-19, although he pointed out that “we have generally delivered the major projects set out in the 2020/21 business plan, while also undertaking important new work to respond to the pandemic”.
The BSB’s independent reviewer has also confirmed that the quality of its decision-making “remains high”, he added.
Mr Neale said the KPIs did not “tell the whole story” and he put before the board an analysis of the throughput of its regulatory work that showed a rise in productivity in areas where the BSB has added resource.
There was also “steady progress made in taking forward disciplinary cases”, he stressed, “with investigations completed and closed matching new investigations begun across the year: in other words, we have kept pace with in-coming work”.
Mr Neale noted too that “perversely the more effectively backlogs are cleared, the worse the KPIs will look short-term”.
But he acknowledged that “we clearly must do more to meet our service standards”.
The BSB has recruited, and continues to recruit, extra people, although this took time to have an effect, and was “seeking to streamline our processes where this can be done while maintaining quality”.