Are the provinces on a par?

Andrew Newbury discusses why solicitors are often dissatisfied with regional barristers' performance. Andrew Newbury is a partner at Pannone & Partners' family law division in Manchester.

It is a common scenario for many solicitors. Time and expense has been invested in preparing for a hearing. You arrive at court with your client, reassuring them of the quality of counsel you have instructed to deal with the hearing. You give them your best assurance that counsel is fully prepared and knows the case just as well as you do.

Despite what you say, you are then met at court by counsel who is not only aloof, but is also ill-prepared and, on top of that, insists upon getting your client's name wrong to their great dismay or irritation.

While this scenario is not uncommon, the situation at the family Bar does seem to be improving. London, in particular, has a developed and thriving family Bar. There are particularly good sets of chambers now specialising in family law with dedicated clerks who are fully aware of the issues. There is a wide choice of counsel at all levels in London with a broad choice of junior counsel.

The present position in the provinces leaves much scope for improvement. Although there are a number of excellent specialists across the country in chambers which are seeking to focus increasingly on family law, it is presently a case of too few specialists for too much work.

In Manchester, for example, while there are several sets which are seeking to develop their family law practice, the number of dedicated specialists remains limited. Although there is a reasonable number of young junior counsel, the selection of senior junior counsel is also restricted. In high net worth cases in the North West the insufficient number of specialist leading counsel means there is a tendency in many high net worth cases to seek the input of leading counsel in London, thus incurring extra costs.

One consequence of there being too much work for too few specialists in the provinces is the danger of counsel having insufficient time to prepare cases properly. One barrister in the North West commented that their clerk did not seem to take account of preparation time when filling up their diary.

A more common problem than the overbooking of counsel is that of over-pricing across the board, both in London and in the provinces. It used to be felt that haggling with clerks was inappropriate.

However, it now regrettably appears to be an integral part of delivering any brief. Although there are some occasions when a refreshingly reasonable fee note is rendered, those instances are now beginning to be increasingly few and far between.

There are also marked differences across the country with respect to the treatment of delivery of the brief. A common problem is when a brief is deemed to be actually physically delivered to the solicitor, and thus payable. It would probably assist all practitioners if a clear and cohesive set of guidelines could be drawn up to clearly indicate when a brief fee becomes payable.

There is concern among solicitors about the future of the family law Bar because of the new Family Law Act. However, it may be the case with the onset of new procedures in the year 2000 that counsel's role will be increasingly marginalised.

The impact of mediation in legal aid cases may mean that an increasing number of disputes are dealt with without formal proceedings being issued. At present, it is far too early to gauge whether that will be the case. In any event, it can be said for certain that despite the impact of compulsory mediation in legal aid cases, there will inevitably be a significant number of cases where the parties will need their day in court.