Proposed reforms to the legal system threaten the existence of the specialist criminal advocate and could spell disaster in the long term, Bar Council chair Heather Hallett QC has warned.
Delivering her address at the Bar's annual conference on 4 October, Hallett condemned a series of proposed and recent reforms which, she said, amounted to "a chipping away at the edges of the system in the name of cost-cutting and market forces which could prove disastrous for the country in the long term".
The introduction of block contracts, an extension of conditional fee agreements and greater use of state-employed lawyers would diminish the independent Bar and lead to fewer independent judges, she said.
She added that although an independent English Bar would always exist "we do not want to become a small cadre of specialist commercial practitioners open to just the few".
Defending the need for specialist criminal advocates, Hallett cited several examples of inadequate disclosure of evidence by the prosecution and said she was astonished to read claims by the Scottish Legal Aid Board that the public defender system, soon to be piloted in Scotland, worked well in other jurisdictions.
"Whatever the financial pressures upon self-employed practitioners hungry for their next brief, there can be no comparison with the pressure which can be exerted upon lawyers by their employers or by the circumstances of their employment," she said.
"We want to remain specialist advocates and advisers available to all. It is in the public interest that we remain so. We may, as sole practitioners answerable to no one, become the only truly independent lawyers left in the world."
In a wide-ranging speech, Hallett also delivered a broadside to "knee-jerk reactions" by the Government to criminal justice issues. She warned that some proposals, such as a further restriction on the right to cross-examine alleged victims in sex cases, might fall foul of the human rights law due to be approved by Parliament later this month.
"It would be a dreadful irony if the first challenge in courts, as a result of incorporation, came to legislation passed in the same session by the same Parliament," she said. "If reports about some of the proposals likely from the Home Office are accurate, that is exactly what will happen."