Employed barristers threaten to boycott Bar Council over rights of audience

Employed barristers are threatening to complain to the competition authorities, and to brief solicitor advocates rather than counsel, if the Bar does not push hard enough to give them rights of audience.

Despite a long campaign, employed barristers currently have less rights of audience than solicitor advocates or even employed solicitors.

The Bar Council is putting together a response to several questions raised by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (Aclec) on the matter.

But some senior members of Bacfi (Barristers in Commerce, Finance and Industry) say that if the response is not strong enough, they will start instructing solicitor advocates rather than their fellow barristers.

They say they will also consider taking the Bar Council to the competition authorities on the grounds that the rules prevent employed barristers competing on a level playing field.

They claim that, while making the right noises in public, the Bar is not fully behind their cause because it fears that giving their employed counterparts rights of audience would take work from the independent Bar.

“It is a bit like a turkey voting for Christmas,” said one Bacfi member who did not want to be named. “We are incensed that we are currently worse off than solicitors and chartered patent agents.”

But Jonathan Hirst QC, who is compiling the response on rights of audience, described the Bar's Council campaign as “vigorous”, and claimed that it was “not quite fair” to say otherwise.

He dismissed the accusations as an “extreme spin from certain sections” of the employed Bar, while adding that rights of audience for employed barristers was a “very sensitive area”.

Robert Owen QC, chairman of the Bar Council, blamed the delays on Aclec, saying that the Bar was acting under Aclec guidance.

Said Owen: “There is absolutely no question of the Bar Council dragging its feet on this. I have said on countless occasions that it is unacceptable for employed barristers and employed solicitors to have different rights of audience.”