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We have been expecting an announcement from the Lord Chancellor on rights of audience for many months. But the scale of last week's consultation paper still took many lawyers by surprise. All solicitors will have full rights of audience on the first day of their admission onto the Roll. To exercise these rights solicitors will have to meet training requirements laid down by the Law Society. It is understood the Lord Chancellor wants these requirements built into the current Legal Practice and Professional Skills Courses. And whereas before the onus was on the Law Society to justify why solicitors should have additional higher court rights of audience, now it is up to opponents of liberalisation to justify why they should not.
The Bar Council has made all the right noises about welcoming new competition, but privately barristers are shell-shocked. By removing the veto on the Lord Chancellor's decisions from the designated judges, the Bar's safeguard against radical change has been swatted aside. Some predict that the proposals will spell out the end of the Bar as we know it. One member of ACLEC estimates that over the coming years the Bar will dwindle to a core of a few thousand specialist advocates.
But the proposals are to be welcomed. It is ludicrous that only 624 solicitor have gained higher court rights since 1990, and that a barrister is considered unfit to appear in the higher courts because he is employed by the CPS. The considerable grief dished out to Barbara Mills by her in-house team makes a nonsense of the Bar's charge that they lack independence. As for the Bar's future, there will always be a need for the unique talents and pool of expertise that it has to offer. Solicitors may want the option of becoming advocates. It remains to be seen if it makes commercial sense for them to exercise their rights. While life may not be so comfortable for barristers after the proposals become law, it may well be a comfortable life all the same.