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21 April 2014
Robin Allen QC is chairing the forthcoming Bar Conference and wants to talk about it. He is surprisingly media savvy for a barrister and is focused on getting in as many plugs as possible. To be fair, much of what he is saying by way of publicity is heartfelt. Allen is a man with a mission, albeit one expressed quite tamely. The Bar must adapt and he, for one, is not afraid of change.
"It's a great pleasure and a great responsibility to be asked by the Bar to chair the conference," he says. "This year it's about balancing change with justice and that, I hope, reflects very much my own idea about practice."
Allen, a tenant of Cloisters Chambers, has been described as a radical, an adjective that he seems simultaneously proud and wary of. He explains: "That doesn't mean anything more than somebody who likes to get to the root of an issue. I mean, that's the sense of 'radical'; and to be not at all afraid to work out what should be happening from first principles." His ideas may raise eyebrows, but its delivery would not. He is both measured and earnest.
Like most barristers, making a living from speaking has made him a powerful and convincing communicator. He takes a genuine interest in the role of the Bar in wider society and the responsibilities that places upon its members. "I respect, and I believe the Bar should respect, the role of Government in securing and enabling change," he says. "It's a dialogue between Government and the Bar. And the contribution from the Bar is to respect that need for change where it's there and to maintain a core commitment to justice, and make sure that those two things are kept in proper balance throughout."
Some changes are, of course, more welcome than others; and assiduous lobbying by legal practitioners has succeeded in diluting some of the Government's proposals, notably the plans to reduce the use of jury trial. Allen says: "I think there's a very strong feeling within the Bar that the political drivers for change failed to engage with a very serious debate about what justice really needed."
All this is noble and worthy, but it is not yet clear what drives Allen to want to take centre stage at the conference. His cases have often generated column inches, but Allen himself has remained one step removed from the media circus, preferring to let his successes speak for themselves.
"I love advocacy. I want to be known as a good advocate. I want to be known as one of the best advocates. But I believe that law isn't just about advocacy and court," he says. "It has a place in society and lawyers should be confident about claiming that place, and I believe that terribly strongly. Engaging with public life about the way in which the profession works is very important."
It is going to be an uphill struggle to convince a disgruntled public that lawyers are not money-hungry shysters. Lawyers are one of the least respected professions in the country, so how is a conference of mutual backslapping and long speeches going to help, even if there are some important issues on the agenda?
"I love my job and I think that the delivery of legal services is vital for a vibrant democracy," Allen explains. "Therefore, public confidence in the profession is, for me, very important. I don't want lawyers in this country to be seen as leeches. I don't want the focus on lawyers to be only on how much they can extract from the public and how quickly. I want them to be seen as people who are actually major contributors to the British society that we have, that they make it work."
Allen's opinions do not stop there: "One thing that every barrister who has a heavy, contentious practice knows is that litigation is frequently undignified and painful, and sometimes drives people bonkers. We need, as a profession, to recognise that the way we go about what we do must be to try to preserve people's dignity throughout this process, even if we have crooks and mad people as our opponents." He is acutely aware of how negatively barristers can be perceived by the public and sees faults in both individuals and the system in which they operate.
"We need, as best we can, to create a robust system so barristers can ask difficult questions, but in which the dignity of the individual is, wherever appropriate, maintained. There's no place for abuse, harassment or badmouthing. Barristers should never be involved in that," he says.
Such idealism cannot be healthy. Surely people only become barristers to give the other side a good pasting? Perhaps Allen's discrimination specialism has made him a bit of a softie, although his history of successes certainly stands as testimony to his own tenacity in court. "When you start out in practice as a barrister, you can get a real thrill out of giving someone a thrashing in court, and sometimes it's appropriate and sometimes it's right that that should happen. But barristers shouldn't have a blood lust," he argues.
The adversarial setup of the courtroom resembles the way in which Parliament is structured, and early on in life Allen thought the argumentative life of a politician would be for him. "I became a barrister because I wanted to be a politician. I thought that to be a politician you needed to know what the law was, because if you're going to make laws you have to know what the law is first," he says. Politics is a career option that runs in the family - two of Allen's great uncles were MPs. "I very, very quickly realised that I would be more effective more quickly as a lawyer than I would be as a politician," he adds. "A lot of my cases are political with a small 'p'."
The size of the 'p' is debatable. Allen was at the centre of the 1980s battle between the Greater London Council (GLC) and the incumbent Conservative Government. He advised the GLC in relation to its publicity, but the political dimension to his practice did not end with the demise of the GLC. "There was a wonderful case in which Greenwich Council got hold of a leaflet that the Government was going to put through every door in the country, saying that the poll tax was the best thing since sliced bread. We rushed off to court saying the leaflet was inaccurate and stopped the publication of the leaflet," he recalls. He still handles a substantial amount of local government work in addition to human rights and employment matters.
Allen is clearly not averse to change or risk. "Change is essential to my life and the majority of my most important cases have been involved with issues that have changed legal policy or changed the way people have thought about things," he says. "Those are the cases I've been proudest of."
Test cases abound on his CV - unfair dismissal rights for pensioners, the first claim for racial discrimination by a serving police officer - but Allen quips that they are not all he does. Joking quickly aside, Allen returns to his more serious points: "I do profoundly believe that you're only half a lawyer if you don't actually want to make, and be involved in, the process of making better laws."
Given his two-pronged focus on change and justice, Allen seems more than naturally suited to his forthcoming role as chairman of the Bar Conference. Topics under discussion will include privacy and the press, mediation and handling conflicts of interest. He has come out of his shell to publicise the conference and, as a man who loves to talk, he has enjoyed himself. In fact, it might be difficult to get him back into that shell.
Robin Allen QC
QC and chairman of the Bar conference