Young barristers are “thrown in at the deep end” when directly advising the public because of woefully inadequate training that has created acute dangers around vulnerable clients, the Bar Council’s annual conference heard at the weekend.
The criticisms come only months after bar leaders significantly modified access rules. Until recently, barristers had to be a minimum of three years’ call before they could advise the public directly; now, provided they sit a one-day training course, are supervised by a senior practitioner and keep a log of their cases, they can advise the public directly immediately on call.
However, senior barristers told the London conference that direct public access with vulnerable clients was highly challenging, even for experienced practitioners. One senior lawyer said “the Bar Council needs to do more on the training front, as junior barristers suffer if they are thrown in at the deep end”.
Responding to the criticisms, bar leaders have announced a doubling of the training requirements before barristers can take instructions directly from the public.
From the mid-January, all those seeking qualification will have to sit a two-day course. While those already qualified will be required to have a top-up day specifically aimed at dealing with vulnerable clients.
Despite the concerns, barristers were encouraged by the bar leadership to view direct access as a means of remaining competitive in a changing professional landscape where solicitor high court advocates are eating away at their traditional core practice area.
“Working without the safety net of a solicitor is an idea that many barristers still consider to be a very radical,” acknowledged Robin Tolson QC, chairman of council’s access to the bar committee. He went on to say: “The bar has always been too nervous of change, but there is nothing in these changes that should frighten us.”
Tolson highlighted a looming reform that many view as yet another step on the slow road to a fused profession in England and Wales. From this January, the ban on barristers conducting litigation will be dropped, a move that Tolson described as “anathema to all those who qualified in the previous generation”.
The QC accepted that fusion was an ulitimate possibility, especially in the light of recent statements from the profession’s umbrella regulator, the Legal Services Board. The LSB has suggested to the government that the public interest would be better served if the current devolved regulation system – which includes the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority – were merged into one profession-wide body.
Tolson said it was ironic – considering initial objections from barristers to the creation of the BSB – that the regulator was currently all that stood between a separate and a fused profession. “As long as the BSB exists,” he said, “we will not have fusion.”
Bar Council chairwoman Maura McGowan QC also dismissed suggestions that the profession was on an inexorable course towards fusion. “The profession will evolve over the next five years,” she told reporters at the conference, “with a large group of practitioners doing solicitor work, a significant number doing traditional advocacy work, and a smaller group in the middle doing a bit of both.”