New bar chair attacks law firms’ in-house advocacy skills

New Bar Council chair Timothy Dutton QC raised concerns about the quality standards of law firms’ in-house advocacy units as he set out his vision for his 12 months in office.

Dutton, who took silk in 1998 and who practises from Fountain Court Chambers, believes the new legislative climate with the Legal Services Act 2007 will create opportunities for the bar both at home and abroad.

Dutton took over from Geoffrey Vos QC on 1 January. He said he plans to put the “barrister first”, which will assist not only the bar but also give the client a cheaper and more efficient service.

Dutton said that, at the moment, solicitors being attracted to providing advocacy services themselves may be having an impact on the quality provided by the legal profession.

“The comparative attraction of ‘advocacy’ to some firms of solicitors, as a service that they themselves might offer, may be causing them not to instruct barristers until errors have been made by inadequate in-house handling of work,” said Dutton.

“I shall be working with the Law Society to ensure that professional standards are never compromised in the way that clients are supported by law firms.”

The act, which Dutton on the whole will be promoting, raises one concern for the new chair – alternative business structures (ABSs).

As Dutton noted, there is the possibility that ABSs would allow solicitors and barristers to work under the same business structure as partners.

But Dutton believes that the bar should stick to the current referral model.

“I’m confident that, in the private sector, provision by a largely specialist referral profession of advocates will be the model of delivery for the next five, 10 or even 20 years, however barristers or their sets of chambers ultimately decide to organise themselves,” he said.

Dutton’s reservations over ABSs, however, have not left him shunning the act. He believes that barristers do belong in the “new world” and envisages specialist advisory and advocacy practices regulated by the Bar Standards Board that do not handle client money and which provide a specialist service.

“We must discuss and debate these issues next year with an open mind, guided by the needs of the public and the interests of justice,” Dutton concluded.