How the West was won

Linda Tsang shoots a glance at those barristers leaving London to blaze the trail and open up the Western Circuit

More and more barristers have been heading west out of London due to increasing competition from solicitor advocates, lack of work at the junior Bar and legal aid cut-backs to become Western Circuiteers. Many chambers on the Western Circuit, such as King's Bench Chambers in Plymouth and Winchester's Pump Court Chambers which is an annexe of Guy Boney's set at 3 Pump Court, Temple, are considered merely the provincial arm of the London set.

More recently, however, Godolphin Chambers moved out from London in 1990 to form the first barristers' chambers in what is sometimes regarded as the final frontier – Truro. This move coincided with the establishment of the new combined court centre in Truro, which rapidly increased the amount of litigation work in the area. And since 1993, South Western Chambers has had an annexe in London and its Taunton premises is the set's base for operations and administration, which is considered both convenient and logical.

With London seen as an overcrowded and expensive legal centre, Brian Lett says that the Western Circuit is “very healthy” because fewer of the larger firms in the area have solicitor advocates to compete with the Bar. But he warns that there can be certain difficulties out on the circuit: “It is possible to be fairly isolated and it is important to maintain connections with other parts of the region.”

This task of maintaining connections on the circuit is performed by the circuit's junior Nigel Lickley and its leader Neil Butterfield QC who was instructed in the recent Lyme Regis canoeing case and is currently prosecuting the Rosemary West case. Butterfield is head of chambers at Walnut House, Exeter, and alongside Frank Abbott, of 3 Pump Court, he is the circuit's principal representative on the Bar Council.

Lickley, of 4 St Peter St, Winchester, an annexe of 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, says there has been a proliferation of chambers opening on the circuit which is a genuine response by the Bar to the needs of local solicitors. Generally, the circuit runs its own arbitration service using qualified arbitrators to provide cheap dispute resolution. It also operates a circuit-wide free representation unit for CABs where silks and junior members give up one day a year to represent clients.

Lickley sees his role of circuit junior as a full-time trade union representative for the circuit. He says that the aim is for the Bar to be “proactive rather than reactive as a profession”. There is also the tradition of the informal Western Circuit which meets quarterly and addresses the geographical isolation of barristers.

Barrister Peter Telford, of Devon Chambers in Plymouth, says there should always be communication and interaction in the circuit. And developments in communications technology have enabled many barristers to base their practices in the South West.

Telford, who specialises in judicial review and has seen this work increasing as more solicitors and CABs become aware of it as a remedy, says: “London barristers are now beginning to have to compete with us. This process has been gradual over the last four years with more and more London barristers moving to the provinces, not only in the South West, to sets outside the capital, facilitated by fax and DX.”

And Southampton set 17 Carlton Crescent, headed by Jeremy Gibbons, is in the process of implementing the Falcon l system. The set is only the third in the UK to switch to this system which, being entirely Windows-based, is seen as 'barrister-friendly'.

Gibbons is currently instructed with Alan Rawley QC in the case of AT&T v Tully which involves alleged fraud relating to the Wessex Regional Health Authority.

Such well-publicised cases in the region are another indication of the drift away from London. Stephen Climie of King's Bench Chambers says: “Neil Butterfield has been a great asset to the circuit because he is highly-regarded in political and legal circles. and can promote the circuit.”

Climie considers that the Western Circuit has fared no better or worse than any other area. In his area of practice, predominantly criminal work, the main aspect of concern is that fees have stood still if not diminished in real terms, which is the case generally.

More particularly, as the Western Circuit has experienced quite a rapid process of change and decentralisation over the last decade, the consensus of the circuiteers is that the prime concern is to maintain standards in advocacy on a circuit which is so diverse and geographically wide.

Linda Tsang is a freelance journalist.