Mutiny over bar reforms

THE BAR Council faces rebellion against the proposed reform of its complaints system because of fears that barristers will be exposed to a welter of unreasonable compensation claims from dissatisfied clients.

Ronald Thwaites QC, criminal silk and head of chambers at 10 King's Bench Walk, is mounting a challenge to the council by calling for an extraordinary general meeting (EGM), by which he hopes to overthrow the reforms.

Thwaites said a Bar Council open meeting planned for November to release details of the proposals to barristers was an attempt by the council to “hijack” his EGM and dilute his challenge to the reforms.

Thwaites will continue to press for the EGM, for which he claims to have the required 150 signatures, despite the open meeting.

Thwaites, describing the reforms as “completely unworkable and completely unfair”, said the Bar Council had been trying to pass them through “on the nod”.

He said the move for an open meeting was “political shilly-shallying of the highest order. The battle lines are now drawn. I'm going to attack these proposals, root and branch.”

But Bar Council chief executive Niall Morison said the open meeting was already planned. It would have constitutional status so that resolutions could be voted on.

Thwaites' chief concern is over plans to make barristers pay compensation of up to £2,000 to clients dissatisfied with poor service from counsel. This will open criminal barristers to frivolous compensation claims, he fears.

“I am appalled that barristers, particularly young and inexperienced ones, could be effectively blackmailed by clients,” he said.

However, Robert Owen QC, chair of the committee drawing up the reforms, said: “We are aware of these concerns over disappointed parties making unmeritorious complaints, but we feel we have built sufficient safeguards into the system.”

These include a lay commissioner to filter such complaints and extending the “immunity to civil proceedings” rule to cover complaints about poor services. Instructing solicitors would also be a source of “objective information” about a complaint, said Owen.