OFT report encourages public access to barristers

The long-awaited Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report into the legal profession is believed to have called for the public to be able to go directly to barristers without having to instruct a solicitor first.

If the proposals are accepted then chambers could see their incomes from BarDirect spiral to around £200m a year. The report was delivered to ministers around 10 days ago, and the Government is currently considering its verdict.

The Bar Council submission to the OFT to end the restrictive competition was led by Guy Mansfield QC of 1 Crown Office Row. He has also called for the system to be overhauled and suggested examining the impact of both multidisciplinary partnerships (MDPs) and law firms.

Bar Council spokesperson Jon McLeod says: “We believe chambers are currently earning between £7m and £10m through BarDirect pilot schemes, but the market could expand dramatically. There's potential for it to grow between 10 or 20 times if it is given a boost by both the OFT and the Government.”

Mansfield says: “Our real concern is the extent to which a small number of large and unwieldy law and accountancy firms will be able to serve the fundamental principles of justice and the client interest in the context of such huge practices. We believe that's a matter requiring real scrutiny.”

But the Bar Council is also concerned about the impact on the independence of the profession against the proposition of multidisciplinary practices which are supported by the Law Society. McLeod says: “MDPs and partnerships would compromise the independence of barristers because they're all sole practitioners, and legal professional privilege couldn't be extended to an MDP and could therefore threaten the client's interests.

“There's no expectation that barristers would hold client funds under BarDirect. There's no reason why a solicitor couldn't be instructed to hold funds if there was a transaction requiring this.”

The Law Society was unavailable for comment.