No more “fortress Bar'?

Jon McLeod offers the Bar advice on its public relations. Jon McLeod is director of PR consultancy Shandwick, one of the company's bidding for the Bar Council's contract.

The transformation of the Government from the maker of reassuring noises over the Bar's future into an administration which is intent on gnawing at the roots of the independent Bar is remarkable.

And, listening to the Government and those around it, there would also seem to be an expectation of change in approach from the Bar Council and the way in which it projects itself.

“Fortress Bar is no longer an option,” a former Bar leader told me last week. “The future of the Bar has got to depend on two things – quality and cost, and nothing else.”

Timely words in the week that the Lord Chancellor with a big PR problem won praise from unlikely corners, including the Daily Mail (see clipping above), for announcing plans to introduce full rights of audience for barristers and solicitors, whether employed or in private practice.

Meanwhile, barristers, practice managers and clerks gathered in Westminster over the last weekend in June to consider the implications of conditional fees and block contracting – which appeared to some to be increasingly ill-fitting in the context of emerging public policy on legal services.

“When you give solicitors control of advocacy budgets and employed barristers and solicitors full rights of audience, you soon have advocacy departments in firms able to attract the brightest and the best with trainees' salaries of £25,000 against pupillages of £6,000,” was the view of one leading practice manager.

In the face of this, the Bar Council seems to have drawn a line in the sand by vowing not to allow conditional fees to “endanger the survival of an independent Bar”.

Its contribution to the debate on the future of legal aid has been the densely argued case for a Contingency Legal Aid Fund (CLAF).

The Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) said it was “grateful” for the contribution, but warned that a CLAF working alongside conditional fees would lead to “adverse selection”, with long-shot cases soon wearing down the viability of the fund.

In the wake of the recent “double whammy” on barristers' fees (planted question plus House of Lords inquiry), Parliamentary Secretary at the LCD Geoff Hoon upped the ante in the commons by claiming that there had been a “pattern of over-claiming by members of the Bar” for legal aid fees. He suggested that payments should be set in the context of the constraints placed on the annual public sector pay round.

Elsewhere, more harrowing news for the Bar came in the Glidewell report on the future of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which criticised the limits on CPS barristers' rights of audience.

In the report some members of the independent Bar are described as “patronising”, and there is “deplorable” evidence that members of the Bar base decisions to offer no further evidence or accept guilt pleas to lesser charges on the basis of personal convenience.

Indeed, the experiences of Tribune newspaper journalist Ian Willmore, on a recent return flight from Barcelona, seem to bear Glidewell out. Four drunken barristers, betting loudly on the outcome of the case in which one of their number was defending a black client whom he called “a f***ing coon”, did not do much to warm Willmore, or the magistrate sitting in front of them, to the cause of the Bar.

“Given the Lord Chancellor's much-touted concern about legal aid… this man did not deserve much taxpayer's money for his work,” Willmore wrote. Incidents like these make a real difference.

Against this, PR consultancy Shandwick has this week submitted a far-reaching programme, entitled Doing justice to the Bar.

This tackles the main perceptual problems which weaken the Bar's advocacy of its own case in key areas like legal aid, reform of the justice system and the future of the professions: its establishment image, the row over high fees, and the view that the Bar is a self-interested profession.

Three initiatives are proposed, designed to provide ammunition and advocates for the Bar to deploy in the key media of now and the future.

If the Bar Council opts to take them up, it may meet the concerns of this professional commentator, who said: “The Bar Council is not trying to set any agenda, indeed journalists say that the press office's job is to stop stories. The problem is that straight bats don't score any runs for the Bar.”

Something, clearly, has to change.