Bar speaks out over audience rights plan

SENIOR barristers clashed with the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham over the Government's plans to hand control of the Bar's professional rules and rights of audience to the Lord Chancellor.

Speaking at the conference, Lord Bingham said the system for changing professional rules and rights of audience, which requires the unanimous consent of four designated judges, frustrated Parliament's intention to broaden rights of audience.

"Once one accepts that the Lord Chancellor is a public officer whose integrity is vital, the arguments against giving him the final say recede," he said. "There is a strong argument that the ultimate decision should rest with the authority on whom public responsibility rests, but there should be no doubt about the terms of reference governing him when he exercises power."

But panel member Sydney Kentridge QC, a public law specialist, said the proposal, announced last June, threatened the independence of the Bar and the judiciary. To loud applause, he said: "The rules of the profession are there to protect the independence of the Bar. It doesn't matter how much the Lord Chancellor is committed to independence of the Bar – and he is – it seems totally wrong as a matter of principle that the rules of our profession should be in the Executive's hands. No good reason has been given for it."

Bar Council chair Heather Hallett QC questioned why the issue could not be resolved by removing the single veto. "The Lord Chief Justice said this would make him feel uncomfortable but I'm afraid, with respect, that is not a good enough answer," he said.

But Solicitor-General Ross Cranston, said: "It can be argued – I'm not saying I'd be persuaded by this – that control by a guild of its own dates from a predemocratic age."