Owen sets the tone for the Bar

Barely hours into his new role as Bar Council chairman, Robert Owen QC was making waves. Radio waves, that is. His attack on proposed legislation to allow police unchecked powers to tap phones, in an interview on Radio 4's Today programme on 1 January, received nationwide press coverage.

His is something of a voice in the wilderness in a “zero tolerance” law and order election year, and Owen has yet to be mauled into reticence and cautiousness by the unpredictable beast of media attention.

Sitting in his half-moved-into chairman's office, the 52-year-old barrister is forthright and opinionated. However, he does not plan to set out his initiatives or bold plans for the 12 months ahead. Political posing is a spurious waste, contends Owen.

Instead the common law barrister, who has served on the Council's race relations, professional standards, training and education committees, as well as the Complaints System Working Party and was last year's Council vice-chairman, is keen to begin reaping the rewards for the profession of the seeds of ideas sown in the past few years.

Owen takes a considered, careful approach to developing his and others' ideas before implementing them. “The problems we face are much longer term and have to be worked out over time,” he explains.

He talks at length about newly-established educational initiatives aimed at helping pupils, such as the application clearing house, as well as continuing education for barristers.

But the father of two grown sons who was admitted to the bar in 1968 when there were just over 2,000 barristers, is deeply troubled by the 12,000 law students who each year are fighting for little more than 400 openings into the now 8,000-strong profession.

“The cost of becoming a barrister or solicitor continues to rise. The danger is that you will cut off people who come from a less affluent background,” he said. “I am absolutely determined that this is a profession that will be open to all.”

To that end former Bar Council chairman Peter Goldsmith QC is investigating the plight of debt-ridden law students to see what, if any, action can be taken to help them.

Owen is also concerned about those who miss out on legal aid but cannot afford civil litigation. The answers, he believes, are legal insurance and conditional fees.

The professional negligence specialist, involved in high-profile cases such as the Creutzfeld Jakob disease litigation, is also strongly in favour of contingency legal aid. Such a system operates in Hong Kong where a 12 per cent levy on any damages awarded has seen legal aid become virtually self-funding.

While legal aid has proved a minefield, the Bar's burgeoning relationship with the Citizens Advice Bureaux, which will give CAB workers and clients direct access to specialist advice from barristers, may prove popular with the public.

The one hint of controversy that could shadow Owen at the Bar Council is the issue of its accountability. It is expected to rear its head in the spring, when results from a questionnaire for barristers are unveiled.

Owen, slightly defensive for the first time, says he is taking a wait-and-see attitude to any proposals to change the council's constitution.

Yet in a general election year, and with law and order near the top of the public's, and thus the politicians', agenda, Owen may find himself in the wider media arena arguing that tough government action does not always make sound legal sense.