Bar stands firm against direct access plan

The Bar Council has warned Labour against plans for direct access and multi-disciplinary practices for barristers and its threat to refer the legal profession to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC).

Bar Council sources said the Bar made clear its support for Labour's reforms where they were in the public interest. But those reforms could be compromised if the Bar is tied up in a time-consuming and unnecessary MMC reference.

Bar chair Peter Goldsmith QC, in a written response to Labour, says that the drawbacks of direct access, already rejected at the Bar's AGM, include “the disappearance of a pool of specialist and independent advocates”.

He adds that inevitable changes in the way chambers operate would increase overheads and therefore “costs for the client and the taxpayer”.

There is no case for direct access, the letter says.

An MMC reference would tie up Bar leaders' time, which “would hamper existing initiatives and an ability to respond positively to Labour's other proposals, such as the Community Legal Service”.

Multi-disciplinary practices would not be in the public interest as they could “undermine” lawyers' professional duties to court and client.

The Bar says the Community Legal Service plan “runs the risk of becoming a bureaucratic, nationalised legal profession” and would not save money, while bearing “strong similarities” with the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper which it opposes.

However, the Bar Council supports most of Labour's plans in principle, such as greater Parliamentary accountability for the Lord Chancellor's Department through a justice and legal services select committee, swift law reforms, improved case management, a legal aid fraud unit, strong safeguards for conditional fees clients and an increase in pro bono work.