Bar Council to confront cab rank rule

THE BAR Council is reviewing the controversial cab rank rule requirement that barristers must accept legal aid briefs whatever the fee.

The profession's ruling body has finally got round to tackling one of the most controversial recommendations of Lord Alexander QC's Bar Standards Review Body.

His influential 1994 report on the future of the Bar argued that the much cherished cab rank rule “should not include the fiction that a legal aid fee is adequate in all cases”.

Quoting one local law society's claim that the legal aid requirement was “a joke”, he argued the rule was neither enforced nor enforceable and did not even reflect the principles behind the cab rank rule.

He said a more realistic cab rank rule which still prevented barristers from refusing briefs they viewed as unedifying, such as that of a person accused of rape, should be “strenuously” enforced by the Bar.

It is a measure of the sensitivity of the recommendation that the Bar Council has only now got round to considering what to do about it.

It has set up a working group, headed by Daniel Brennan QC, chair of the Personal Injury Bar Association, to examine the recommendation. It will report back to the Bar Council in the autumn.

But with the issue of legal aid at the forefront of public debate, the Bar Council is unlikely to take lightly a decision which would expose the Bar to claims it was turning its back on legal aid.

It is understood the leadership will argue that the entire legal aid debate has shifted and it is far more important for the Bar to anticipate the impending reforms of legal aid.

But Robert Seabrook QC, Bar Council chair when Alex-ander's report was published, still supports the recommendation. “I would be sorry to see the requirement go, but I think realism is the order of the day.”

Chris Boothman, head of the Commission for Racial Equality's legal department, said the cab rank rule helped preserve good race relations and said he would be concerned at proposals to water it down.

But he added that the reality was that barristers were already able to “pick and choose” their briefs.