Bar wants to play on level fields

There are two thrusts to the bundle of recommendations from Lord Alexander's committee on standards at the Bar. The first is the proposed complaints and compensation system to meet the needs of the public and follow the promptings of the legal ombudsman and the Royal Commission. More public tribunals will be welcome.

That the Bar has been able to get by without such mechanisms is partly a reflection that barristers' services are bought on a client's behalf by a knowledgeable third party. This system has resulted in high standards of service.

The other thrust of the report is relations with other lawyers and court procedures. So the requirement to provide a written explanation with the late return of a brief may help dispel suspicions that something better came along.

The moves to greater fee transparency are to be welcomed. How fees are arrived at and accounting for brief fees are sore points and new rules should spell out unequivocal procedures.

Pre-trial conferences for Crown Court cases make sense, but the question of payment in public purse cases has to be addressed.

In civil cases, the present prohibition on counsel speaking to witnesses before has been described as daft, though the safeguards will still be needed for Crown Court trials.

The slimming down of the cab-rank rule so that it operates just as a non-discriminatory requirement appears to be a shift in the relationship of barristers with client and solicitor. But, currently the obligation on legal aid preventing counsel from rejecting work on the basis of fees is seen as little more than a fiction. And lawyers see the rule itself as unenforceable.

It is better to strip away the hypocrisy. The up-dating of the cab-rank rule encapsulates the spirit of the report, ensuring that barristers are more accountable to clients and make the playing fields more level.