Following a Patten

There has been so much change in and around Lincoln's Inn in the last two decades that a distinction can now be drawn between traditional chancery work comprising mainly of wills, trusts and matters pertaining to estates and property law and commercial chancery work, which covers large commercial con- tractual disputes, financial services and intellectual property.

The Chancery Bar has changed a lot since Nicholas Patten took up his first tenancy at 9 Old Square in 1974. Nearly a quarter of a century later,

Patten has succeeded Hazel Williamson QC as chairman of the Chancery Bar Association.

He says that the old-school wills and trusts work has been overtaken by the amount of commercial work that has found its way into the Chancery Division. In actual fact, there is a lot more chancery work generally, and much more of it is handled in court.

The image of the chancery barrister has changed accordingly. "There was a time when our members were seen as no good at cross-examination," says Patten. "Chancery barristers were seen as black-letter lawyers, better suited to dealing with issues that turn on legal rather than factual issues."

He adds: "These distinctions have now blurred. The work is now contentious. There is more hostile litigation and barristers in the Chancery Bar have changed to suit this."

Patten believes chancery work has changed because of what happened during the 1980s.

The property crash saw actions taken by building societies and banks against solicitors and conveyancers, while conversely there was a lot less contract work due to the sale of land.

There was also a great deal of insolvency work (both corporate and personal), and massive amounts of litigation surrounding the collapse of BCCI and the Maxwell case.

Work stemming from any set of circumstances, no matter how far reaching, is bound to be finite, but Patten does not see the 700 or so members of the Chancery Bar moving back to more traditional work in great numbers. This is because, as Patten points out, economies are extremely cyclical.

"It is hard to predict what kind of work we will be doing in the future, but I've seen collapses of this type twice: once in the early 1970s which took 10 years to filter through the legal system, and again in the late 1980s, the fall-out from which we are still dealing with."

Despite a changing workload and calls for it to be merged with the Queen's Bench Division, Patten is confident the Chancery Bar will retain its independence.

He believes that there is "no risk of fusion" because there is no sense in "diluting the specialism of a set of practitioners through amalgamation".

The Chancery Division is still distinct enough from the Queens Bench Division, in Patten's eyes, to retain the same special status as the Family Division.

He points out that there are only 10 sitting judges in the Chancery Bar, which makes it easier for counsel, who habitually appear before them, to become acquainted with their nuances.

This can actually help expedite proceedings. In contrast, the Queens Bench Division has far more judges, who rotate around the national circuit with a more generalist workload.

If the likelihood of merger is fading, Lord Irvine's planned removal of legal aid in civil cases, is increasingly ominous. Patten estimates that about a quarter of work in chancery is funded by legal aid and will, as such, be under threat.

Recent Inland Revenue plans to move taxation from a "cash" to an "earnings basis" have also infuriated the Chancery Bar.

If the plans become reality all barristers will be penalised. Patten believes that young barristers will be hit the most as they have no cash flow or savings to absorb this type of taxation.

Patten was especially disappointed that he found out about the proposed changes through a colleague who chanced upon the Inland Revenue's Web site when surfing the Internet.

The plans were drawn up without any consultation with the profession at all. He says that fighting the changes could develop into a major issue for the Chancery Bar as well as the Bar Council.

However, Patten believes this is a fight the Chancery Bar will win.