Trouble for the bar’s criminal division

The news that Cloisters’ criminal team, 14 Tooks Court and Two Garden Court are in tripartite merger negotiations is the latest in a series of major developments to shake the bar.

The bar’s criminal division has long known that it was going to be the worst hit by changes to the justice system and will doubtless lose more members than any other as the bar contracts. External pressures on the criminal bar – and conflicting profitability and working practices on the civil side – have forced mixed sets into huge restructuring programmes, often resulting in the civil and criminal sides going their separate ways.

The idea of a criminal super-set, although at an early stage, is being received as perhaps the most sensible response to the changes in the way publicly-funded work is sourced and managed.

But mergers are hard to carry out in any business, and gaining the approval of more than 100 self-employed barristers is almost impossible. The fact that 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square and Monckton Chambers have taken several months just to agree on a new name, Bentham Chambers, is testament to that fact, especially as the original timescale to complete the merger was a mere three weeks.

It may prove necessary to undertake more radical changes to current working practices to create a cohesive, manageable and profitable practice of that size – putting partnership once again in the frame. Failure to accept that the debate on partnership is worthy is simply ignorant.

There may always be a place for a small advocacy referral profession but for the vast majority of practitioners, it could be a very different future.