A profession divided?

The Bar Council AGM, in the panelled Great Hall at Lincoln’s Inn, amply demonstrated two distinct groups co-existing at the Bar.

Each group held such entirely contrary views of the world that they could only call to each other distantly across the void. One represented the middle ground. This included many of the regional and employed Bar and those in London ranking below the profession’s top echelon who are feeling the effects of competition from solicitor advocates. These barristers want urgent action by the Bar Council to improve their lot.

The other group represents the top London-based silks – successful, affluent, mainly private practice lawyers, ex-officios like Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell, Bar Council chiefs, all traditionalists who espouse the status quo.

It was on this basis of a split profession that radical resolutions for change – barrister partnerships with solicitors and other barristers, full direct access – were proposed, cheered and easily quashed.

There was never much doubt which group would hold sway in the final voting showdown.

Six people spoke from the floor in support of the most radical resolutions; not one spoke against the motion (that was left to Bar Council supremos).

And yet despite this strength of feeling, the resolutions were, in the words of the Attorney General who chaired the AGM, “overwhelmingly defeated”.

The vote coincided with the appearance of several dozen newcomers, rumoured to include heads of chambers, allegedly whipped by the Bar Council to vote.

Senior council figures spoke about the challenges facing barristers. But real frustrations, unappeased by Bar leaders, were evident from the floor.

Non-practising barristers employed in solicitors’ firms complained about “marginalisation”, about not having the advocacy rights enjoyed by their employers, and about solicitors’ “enormous buying power”. They called for a “level playing field”. One said the problems affected “those in the middle rather than at the top” of the Bar. “The independence of the Bar has already been undermined…we should at least give ourselves an opportunity to have our hands free,” said another.

The Bar Council was attacked for being “electorally distant”. Nick Easterman, who won a resolution to improve balloting procedure, said: “It is absurd…that the Bar as a whole does not have control of its own professional body to implement or stop any proposals.”

Finally Robin De Wilde QC, a member of the ’85 “slate” which brought Tony Scrivener QC to the Bar Council, warned of the “grave danger, even today, that the Bar Council does not represent the members…It is actually the ordinary members, you and I, who have things done in our names.”

De Wilde, lending his support to Easterman’s resolution, said that it was “a timely shot across the bows”.