Time for Glasnost at the Bar

The Bar Council has had its critics over the years, but no right-minded barrister has ever dared to compare it with the Kremlin under Soviet rule. Until now, that is.

Veteran democracy campaigner Robin de Wilde QC made such a comparison at the Bar Council's AGM on 14 June. He was speaking during a heated debate on democracy at the Bar, which saw a motion to open up elections for the chair of the Bar Council defeated by just one vote.

He followed this accusation by launching a personal attack on Bar Council chairman Robert Owen QC, claiming he had taken an unelected route to the top.

Owen did not respond to the criticism, but the attack was too much for Nigel Pascoe QC, leader of the Western Circuit and chairman of the Bar Council's public affairs committee.

He lambasted de Wilde's “snide remarks”, adding: “Behind these attacks is an unpleasant and arrogant approach.”

When the vote was finally cast, 50 were in favour of the motion and 51 were against. Calls for a recount were refused by the Attorney General and AGM chairman John Morris QC. “That's a Labour Attorney General for you,” sighed one barrister.

Considering that the Bar Council AGM has previously struggled to get a 60-strong subscriber quorum, an impressive number of barristers attended the event. The majority had clearly turned up to witness the fight over democratising the Bar Council.

Once the housekeeping was completed, treasurer Michael Blair QC embarked on the council's official response to grassroots mutterings about the alleged lack of democracy. He proposed that future motions passed at the AGM become binding. Until now the council has been able to ignore any resolution passed at its AGM.

The idea of introducing a binding “directive resolution” was hammered out by a Bar committee following calls for greater democracy at the 1995 AGM. But to avoid what Blair described as “unnecessary tension”, any directive resolution will have to clear an elaborate series of hurdles before it can tie the Bar Council's hands.

It must address a “major matter”, be properly thought out, deliverable, and also have been considered earlier by the council. It will also have to be passed by a two-thirds majority. Then there is the special clause designed to prevent independent barristers from being ambushed by an unsavoury resolution from the 2,500-strong employed Bar.

The resolution was passed, but only after concerns were raised by barrister Nicholas Easterman that the conditions governing the resolutions will now be rewritten before the next AGM in 12 months.

The introduction of binding resolutions may give barristers a greater input into Bar Council policy, but it did not prevent de Wilde from pressing on with his proposal to demand that all officers of the Bar Council be elected annually by subscribers.

Once the heated confrontation between de Wilde and the establishment was over, the meeting continued in a relatively calm manner.

The Non-Practising Barrister Association's call for a minimum salary for pupils and young tenants and a proposal to drop the term “non-practising barrister” were both defeated.

However, near unanimous support was given to a motion from the bar race relations committee chair Lincoln Crawford, slamming the Inns for not implementing a proper Equal Opportunity Code. This show of unity was a rare exception after three hours of tough talking about democracy at the Bar.

De Wilde's critics said that the failure of yet another attempt to democratise the Bar showed that it was a non-issue. His supporters, on the other hand, argued that the fall in subscriptions to the Bar Council was an indication that barristers were feeling increasingly disenfranchised.