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The UK's main in-house barristers' group has threatened to split from the Bar Council if the extended rights of audience provisions for employed lawyers are dropped from the Access to Justice Bill.
The warning from Bar Association for Commerce, Finance & Industry (Bacfi) chairman Susan Ward comes just days after the chairman of the Law Society Commerce & Industry Group, Paul Gilbert, warned that in-house solicitors may be forced to form their own body, unless the Law Society provides more support and funding (The Lawyer, 1 February).
After the House of Lords threw out Government plans to ensure in-house lawyers receive the same audience rights as private advocates, Ward accused the council of campaigning against Bacfi. "The council seems to be campaigning against the interests of a significant proportion of its membership, which is of much concern."
She claims that the council is not as committed to extending audience rights as it makes out.
Ward says Bacfi's 2,000-plus members - which account for about 25 per cent of council membership - are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens.
She adds that, although the group does not want to break from the council, the matter has been discussed several times in the past - although it has never been voted on.
"If rights of audience are thrown out of the Bill, though, we might have to think along those lines," Ward says.
"We don't want to be pushed aside... We have the right to be part of the mainstream Bar."
The council last year changed its rules to allow employed barristers limited audience rights, but Ward brands the attached conditions "absurd".
They include only allowing High Court audience rights for interlocutory proceedings, and on proof of experience in specified fields.
Bacfi's requests, Ward says, are simple: "We want the same regime to apply across the board. We want all barristers to be able to provide a full range of legal services - not just advice, but advocacy in all courts."
Council spokesman Jon McLeod says his group campaigns on behalf of all its members: "The fact is, we neither inspired nor lobbied for this amendment, and anyone who says we did is palpably wrong."
He says that he is available "any time, any place, anywhere" to discuss rights of audience matters with Bacfi.
"I think that if the pastoral work of the council in making sure each section of the Bar feels loved and wanted is capable of improvement, then it must be improved."