Report set to herald raft of swingeing changes for Bar

SWEEPING rule changes allowing barristers to reject low-paying legal aid work and requirements to compensate clients are likely to be announced this week in the Bar's standards review body report.

The package of recommendations, ranging from training and discipline through to terms of business and an overhaul of the cab rank rule, is expected to be the most radical step for the Bar since the Courts and Legal Services Act.

The review body, headed by former Bar Council chairman Lord Alexander QC, was formed last year to consider recommendations from the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and the Legal Services Ombudsman. It consulted extensively within and outside the legal profession.

Among the proposed changes most affecting the public will be the modernisation and simplification of the complaints and disciplinary system – as requested by the Ombudsman in 1992.

Details of a compensation payment system are likely, as is a requirement for formal apologies for disgruntled clients.

The Bar's cab rank rule, used by the Bar Council to demonstrate its superiority in the wrangling over solicitor's rights of audience, is likely to be axed.

Under likely proposals, barristers would be constrained by the statutory non-discrimination rules of the Courts and Legal Services Act, in the same way as solicitor advocates.

These rules prevent turning down a case on grounds such as race, or certain types of defendants within an area of law practised by the advocate.

The loss of cab rank would also eliminate the obligation of barristers handling legally aided work to take on all cases offered. They could then, like solicitors, reject legal aid cases on such grounds as low payment.

Written explanations for the late return of briefs are unpopular with some barristers, but review body recommendations may deal with this problem.

A more transparent basis of charging is expected to be proposed, as is the encouragement of a more active role for judges in reporting poor performers – one of the Royal Commission's recommendations.

Rules allowing barristers to meet witnesses and victims before trial, better monitoring of pupil's progress, and best practice guidelines are also anticipated.