The Leader column

Just what on earth is the Bar Council getting so hot under the collar about? The OFT report is not exactly unexpected, or indeed unwelcome. Direct access has been around in some form or another for many years – right up until 1955, Joe Public could go directly to the bar on a whole range of matters. The Bar Council’s own big initiative in 2000 was BarDirect and the joint venture of Brick Court Chambers, One Essex Court and Essex Court Chambers with the Commerce and Industry Group signals their intentions. And the employment of paralegals by sets such as Matrix gives a clear indication of how far the relationship between barristers, solicitors and clients has already changed.

The removal of the restrictions on barristers forming partnerships or joining MDPs was, frankly, inevitable. While the majority of barristers will undoubtedly wish to preserve their self-employed status (which they are perfectly entitled to do), and as much of a shock as it might be to the Bar Council, there are many among those it professes to regulate that support the proposals. In The Lawyer back in 1999, Andrew Arden QC demanded a change in practice rules to allow partnerships at the bar, supported in principle by 3 Verulam Buildings’ joint head, Christopher Symons QC. Since then, this view has gained significant support among a cross-section of the bar. Many common law sets could make great economies from forming partnerships, and you could argue that sets such as Birmingham’s St Philip’s Chambers, which in the past two years has overhauled the way it is run, has been preparing for just this eventuality.

On the other hand, the abolition of silks is likely to have the perverse result of making existing Queen’s Counsel richer. When the equivalent system of Serjeants was abolished in Ireland, it was not done retrospectively. By 1985 there was only one left, a Serjeant Sullivan, who was instructed for practically every case in Ireland and who could presumably charge whatever he liked.

Taking silk is currently not a licence to print money. In the first quarter of 2000, when the commercial bar was at its quietest for many years, it was the silks that suffered most. Even in the buoyant market many sets are forced to offer reduced rates for their young silks in order to keep them busy.

In this current lawyer-bashing climate would it not have been better for Roy Amlot to offer some concessions? Abolish wigs, for example.