29 May 2006
The legal profession is changing. The forthcoming Legal Services Bill will transform the way solicitors, barristers and other legal professionals go about their jobs.
Both the Law Society and the Bar Council wanted to be a step ahead of the Government, and in January the two bodies split their regulatory and representative functions. Under the expected terms of the bill, both organisations will come under the aegis of the new umbrella regulator, the Legal Services Board (LSB).
This year's Bar Council chair Stephen Hockman QC is in charge of overseeing the shift in function and strategy. He is in a buoyant mood about the changes and the way they will affect relationships with the Law Society.
"I think increasingly, post-Clementi, we're seeing ourselves as members of the same profession," he says. "We're working more closely together than ever before. On the other hand we will, to some extent, be competing for business and we'll be competing for the most able practitioners. But the competition will take place transparently on an open field of play with a neutral referee."
The Bar Council has had all of its new committees in place since the beginning of the year. Lay and professional members have been appointed according to Nolan principles. On the regulatory front, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) is working to establish itself as a solidly independent body. Hockman attends BSB meetings as "an observer and occasional contributor", but stays out of the decisions being made.
"Any attempt by me to impose my personal ideas would be doomed to failure, because they're aware of the need to be an autonomous regulator," Hockman explains. He says the BSB's independence from government is paramount, and praises the decision of legal services reviewer Sir David Clementi to recommend leaving the Bar Council as the profession's front-line regulator.
"First, because it does give clarity in decision-making in matters of regulation," he says. "Second, because as a result we believe that the bar should continue to enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy in regulatory matters and shouldn't be subject to day-to-day intervention by a higher authority."
However, Hockman is determined that the representative half of the Bar Council, which he leads, should not remain silent when it comes to how the profession is run. "Just because decision-making in relation to regulation now lies with the autonomous structure, it doesn't mean that the representative side has nothing to say about these crucial issues affecting the future of the profession," he says. "It's very much for the representative side to form policy and to make representations to the BSB."
One of the key representative activities of the Bar Council during the past months has been working with Lord Carter of Coles on his legal aid funding review. It is a critical issue affecting thousands of criminal and civil barristers, and towards the end of 2005 the lack of government action led many practitioners to begin refusing new instructions.
Hockman points out that a resolution of the legal aid crisis is essential to prevent barristers from simply moving into privately funded work. "The problem that we got into last year was that the system had been set in stone," he explains. "It would be very shortsighted not to ensure that we have a satisfactory and well-resourced system for the use of legal aid."
The bar's representative work goes further afield than Lord Carter's review. During a recent trip to China with Law Society president Kevin Martin, Hockman met a number of Chinese lawyers, officials and judges to discuss ways for English solicitors and barristers to get involved in China's boom.
"There's no reason why Chinese businesses and Chinese legal practitioners could not seek advice from English barristers," says Hockman, describing scenarios for barristers to advise on the development of the legal system and the way in which litigation is carried out.
This is an issue closer to home as well. Mr Justice Tomlinson's recent judgment on costs following the collapse of the BCCI trial strongly criticised the handling of the case and the conduct of the barristers concerned. Hockman will not comment on individuals, but is keen not to see a repeat of the BCCI debacle.
"I think everybody would agree that it would be preferable for litigation of any kind to be conducted in a way that doesn't lead to trials of the sort of length that we saw here," he says. "Whether we need better and more imaginative methods of case management I don't know, but I'd certainly support further consideration of that."
Although BCCI's legacy could be potentially damaging, Hockman believes that the bar's future is safe and that there are still plenty of opportunities for barristers to use their unique advocacy skills.
"So long as we continue to have a civilised democracy, I think the need for people to be skilled in the delivery of cases is going to be as strong as ever before," he predicts confidently.