Aclec member blasts Lord Irvine over audience rights

A leading member of the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (Aclec) has launched a scathing attack on Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine over his plans to speed up the extension of audience rights.

In what he describes as a “personal response” to the Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD) consultation paper on rights of audience, issued in June, Professor Lee Bridges has dismissed the controversial proposals as “inadequate and short-term solutions”.

The radical changes put forward in the LCD paper included abolishing Aclec and replacing it with a “more focused” body, the Legal Services Consultative Panel (LSCP), which would only give advice when asked to by the Lord Chancellor. The paper also proposed stripping the veto currently held by three “designated judges” over any decision by the Lord Chancellor to extend audience rights.

While Bridges welcomed Lord Irvine’s proposal to abolish the veto, he said he doubted whether “the Lord Chancellor, acting on his own and possibly without resort to any independent source of advice… will prove any more effective in furthering the statutory objective”.

And he said he was sceptical whether Aclec’s replacement, the LSCP, would be “sufficiently independent” of the Lord Chancellor or have enough power to represent the public interest.

According to Bridges, the paper focused too much on Aclec failures and not enough on the lack of substantial decision-making by the Lord Chancellor and “designated judges” on extending rights.

He said the paper had “misrepresented” Aclec’s role, having described it as a “mere appendage” of LCD policy rather than as an independent advisory body on the extension of rights, which he said was its true function. He said the paper also contained “worrying” indications that the Government was less committed to “radical and wide-ranging” reform of legal services than was originally believed.

Bridges, a law professor at Warwick University, said that he thought changes should be approached more carefully and that while wholesale changes might be “superficially” attractive, they would be likely to lead to “poor and uncertain” statutory drafting. He called for legislation governing rights of audience to be clarified and for a streamlined, more efficient Aclec.

The LCD plans have already been attacked by three leading appeal judges – Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, Lady Justice Butler-Sloss and Sir Stephen Brown – who described them as “positively breathtaking”.

Brown, a leading opponent of the extension of rights and a “designated judge”, expressed astonishment in August that Lord Irvine had not bothered to consult him over proposals.

The LCD plans were also attacked at this month’s annual Bar conference.