The new Bar Council chairman has pledged to work towards proving that the Legal Services Board (LSB) is not needed.
In a stinging attack on the LSB – continuing a Bar Council campaign of recent months – Maura McGowan QC warned that “it is not the function of a regulator to seek the total dismantling and restructuring of the system”.
In her inaugural address to the Bar Council earlier this week, Ms McGowan said: “Recently I was asked to suggest names of members of the Bar who might become members of the Legal Services Board, the request was couched in terms that I nominate barristers ‘committed’ to change in the provision of legal services. My reply, that surely what they wanted was people ‘open’ to change, was met with stunned and continuing silence.
“The LSB is with us for at least the next two years. Its second term was granted after its first review. There is support both in government and in general for the view that regulation should not be too heavy a burden. As a profession which was recognised for the efficacy of its self-regulation, surely we can work towards meeting the next review by being able to demonstrate that one external regulator is enough.”
In a speech that was notable for not referencing either alternative business structures or the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates – especially as she is a criminal law practitioner – Ms McGowan highlighted the role of direct access in opening up the Bar to foreign lawyers.
“[Direct access] forms an increasing source of work to certain areas of practice; it is thriving but must be further encouraged. Almost half the self-employed Bar has trained and is now qualified to accept instructions in this way. That cannot simply be as a result of the difficulties which the publicly funded Bar faces, it must mean that there is a need on the part of clients, domestic and international, to instruct counsel by this route.
“Further there is a willingness, possibly even enthusiasm, on the part of barristers to receive work in this way. It is a supplementary format; it is not designed nor should it replace the traditional provision and acceptance of instructions.”
Ms McGowan said that for direct access to be effective in producing work for the publicly funded Bar, the Bar Standards Board needs to change the rules to allow a barrister to accept direct instructions in cases where the client is eligible for legal aid. She also called on barristers to join in a new project to design a new model for legal aid.
“It may well have many aspects of the old, it may be completely new, we must see and seize an opportunity for changing the system for the better,” she said.