Those who did bother to attend the Bar Council's AGM found themselves amidst a verbal scuffle surrounding rights of advocacy. Shaun Pye reports. Towards the end of the Bar Council's AGM last week, a portly, silver-haired gentlemen began to explain how, late in life, he had decided to go to Bar school. He passed his exams with aplomb but, because of his maturity, he only managed to secure a six-month pupillage.
Fortunately, he had foreseen the problem and knew that he could still make a living acting in, among other things, tribunals. Then, on 1 June this year, the Bar Council decreed that non-practising barristers such as himself did not have any rights of advocacy in court, including tribunals, unless they obtained a special waiver.
Referring to the earlier comments of Bar Council chairman Heather Hallett QC, that the Bar must not “abandon” those who fail to make it into independent practice, he claimed that the Bar had not, strictly speaking, “abandoned” him. It had, instead, “kicked him in the face”.
And so, after an hour and a half of communal sympathy, backslapping and collective condemnation of our uncaring government, the Bar Council AGM erupted into a good old-fashioned scrap.
Johnathan Hirst QC, chairman of the Bar's professional standards committee, lamented that anyone in England could provide legal advice – “just ask any taxi driver”. He said that the public needed to be protected from those who called themselves “barristers”.
Dr Peter Gray, a GP who heads the English Non-Practising Barristers' Association (ENPBA), congratulated Hirst on the gag – adding with opprobrium that it was “funnier when he told it last year”.
They were debating a motion condemning the Bar Council's rule change, and the result – 43 against and 30 for – was closer than many anticipated.
But despite the excitement, there was only one real enemy. When, after an hour, Nigel Pascoe QC proposed that “the Bar of England and Wales invites the Government to express its support for an independent Bar” there were few left with any more spleen still to vent.
Earlier, the Attorney General, John Morris QC, who chaired the meeting, had kicked off by heaping praise on the Bar, which he said would “continue to be one of the bastions of liberty”.
But in a speech later described by one speaker as “deeply moving”, Hallett asked why the Government persisted in conducting war by media against the Bar. She said: “The spin doctors should remember that there comes a point when if you undermine lawyers sufficiently, you destroy public confidence in the legal system altogether.”
She then took us on a trip around the legal globe, stopping in the US, where lawyers are “perceived as greedy uncaring and with poor ethical standards”, Peru, where you can buy a judge and China – enough said – to demonstrate how well-respected and important our independent Bar is.
In a slightly laboured analogy, the Bar Council's chief executive, Niall Morison, compared being at the Bar with living in California. California offered riches and sunshine, and the Bar offered riches – although not much sunshine. But California rests on the San Andreas fault and suffers periodic earthquakes, while the Bar suffers periodic “earthquakes” with changes to how barristers pay tax, conditional fees and so on. After a time, everybody got the picture.
His underlying message, though, was clear. Whatever the Government throws at us, the Bar Council will be there fighting your corner. He pointed to its success with the change from a cash basis of taxation where it had won significant concessions. But he also warned that subscriptions to the Bar Council might have to rise for the first time in four years.
Did the AGM tell us anything we did not know? The most significant conclusion could be the size of the turnout. Admittedly, it was raining and Spain played Nigeria in the World Cup at 1.30pm. But there were fewer than 100 at the meeting, empty seats making up by far the largest constituency.
The previous two hours had certainly failed to inspire one barrister, who could be heard to mumble “bloody useless waste of time” as he shuffled out of the hall. Probably one of those pesky non-practising fellows.