Slating the Bar Council

Robin de Wilde QC has been elected to the Bar Council after accusing it of 'pandering to the Government'. Jon Robins asks: can he repeat the success he had in the 1980s with rebel barrister group the Slate?

It doesn't take much to cause a stir in the rarified atmosphere of the Inns of Court. After all, there was a time when simply wearing a grey and pink tie was enough. “I used to wear it to irritate people,” admits Anthony Scrivener QC, the eminent silk and former chairman of the Bar Council. The distinctive neckpiece indicated membership of the State, the radical reform group that dominated the Bar Council in the late 1980s, the views of which Scrivener represented during his leadership.
Whenever he had a meeting with the Inns of Court (usually “to extract money”, as he puts it), Scrivener would don his Slate tie. “It really made them bristle, and they got the message that we couldn't care a sod and the bar came first,” he reveals.
In the words of one commentator, it is “the grandchildren of the Slate” that now run the profession. If that is the case, one wonders what they made of the recent outburst of its founder, Robin de Wilde QC, when, during his recent election statement, he damned their Bar Council as “a spineless organisation”.
“The leadership no longer represents the great majority of the profession,” de Wilde declared. “Barristers doing publicly funded work have been ignored or betrayed.” Whatever the profession's leaders might have thought of this scalding attack, it seems to have struck a chord with the voters. De Wilde is believed to have attracted more votes than any other silk on an assessment of the council's single transferable votes system.
The veteran campaigner claims to be somewhat taken aback by the response that his call to arms provoked. Having said that, the silk caused a similar storm when he tried to stage a political comeback in 1998 when he likened the ruling body to a communist regime at its annual general meeting (AGM).
De Wilde is not attempting to resurrect the Slate, but he acknowledges that the ideas behind his latest initiative are descended from that group.
“I was disgusted with the way things have been going and I definitely feel that the [council members] have been looking after their own interests,” he says. “There is a danger that we divide ourselves into the rich people in the commercial sector who do the specialised work and the poor who are doing the publicly funded work.”
Certainly, the fiery rhetoric will have a familiar ring to practitioners of a certain age. De Wilde clearly feels that the frustration and desire for reform of the bar echoes the mood of exasperation that existed some 15 years ago, when the Slate was first formed. Many barristers have contacted the silk expressing sympathy with his disparaging assessment of the profession's ruling body. So how many new radicals are waiting in the wings? “Enough to contest every place,” intones de Wilde.
So what was the Slate? The group began in 1985 and was the brainchild of de Wilde (noted by many to be its driving force), Anthony Speaight QC and Oliver Sells QC. “Some of us felt that there was a rather lethargic Bar Council, which had a very different constitution to the one that it has today,” recalls Speaight. “We felt that it was doing rather little to help the average barrister.” As the silk sees it, the main objective was to sort out the “atmosphere and culture”.
Scrivener is more forthright. “We felt that the rich and wealthy were running the show,” he says bluntly. The idea behind the group was to force its way on to the council – democratically, of course – and then change the profession's ruling body from within.
“We were much more aggressive with the authorities than anyone had ever been before,” Scrivener says. “We weren't prepared to be necessarily polite and were quite prepared to take it to the wire.” Having said that, one Slate member says that their language has never been quite so direct as de Wilde's latest pronouncement.
The chief evil of the old Bar Council was the lack of contested elections for the post of chairman.
It was perfectly possible to become chairman of the bar without ever receiving the mandate of the profession or the backing of any significant constituency. “You could become a circuit leader elected by your own wine committee, having got on the wine committee because members of your chambers are already there,” explains Scrivener. “And that would get you on the Bar Council, which could then elect you as chairman, and so you've never been elected by the whole bar ever.” As he says, it was “a complete farce”.
It was this façade of democracy that the Campaign for the Bar, as the group was first known, set out to demolish. It delivered a 10-point 'manifesto' setting out its objectives and fielded eight candidates on a 'slate' in the 1985 Bar Council election.
“We were called the Slate by our opponents as a term of abuse and like many terms of abuse it was turned into a term of pride by those on it,” says Martin Bowley, a recently retired barrister who was a leading Slate member. As he points out, the idea of delivering a manifesto was also a first in the cosy world of bar politics.
It was a tough time for many in the profession, and the Criminal Bar in particular was under attack over legal aid pay rates. The Government was also putting pressure on broadening the rights of audience. Bar Council AGMs are usually fairly sedate affairs, but that year so many barristers turned up that the meeting had to be postponed and moved from the Old Hall in Lincoln's Inn to the Central Hall in Westminster to accommodate the extra members.
Bowley recalls the “angry mood” when he had to address the meeting to second a Slate proposal. “It was quite the most frightening thing I've ever experienced,” the barrister recalls. “There were one and a half thousand of my professional colleagues and I knew that arranged behind me were all the great and good from the profession.” The delegates' anger, however, was directed towards the bar's leaders and not the reformers.
Not surprisingly, the more establishment-orientated figures on the council resented the new upstarts.
“At the start, we were looked upon as lepers,” says Scrivener. On one occasion, he recalls Slate members interrupting and heckling and generally disrupting the polite progress of a council meeting. “One chap, now a judge, turned round and said, 'We wanted to keep you bastards off the council',” he recounts. “Two years later the same chap said that he wanted to eat his words.”
The main driver behind the constitutional reforms was the belief that the lack of democratic accountability at the top end of the profession meant that the bar was not capable of defending either the bar itself or its clients from an attack by the Government.
According to one former Slate activist, becoming chair of the bar was viewed as “a leg-up to the judiciary”. “If you're ambitious to become a judge, the last thing you want to do is engage in a shouting match with the Lord Chancellor,” he notes.
De Wilde, Speaight and Sells approached Scrivener about standing as their candidate for the top job at the bar. “I had no idea that I was ever going to become chair and I had no intention of becoming chair either,” says Scrivener. “But I was quite agreeable to attacking the establishment and start this rallying call for the Slate.”
As Speaight recalls, the group did “stunningly well” in the first election and had all 10 of its candidates elected to the council. But their intention was not to hijack proceedings and they aimed to win only a 25 per cent share of membership of the council.
“We'd never seek to gain power and control it because that would be self-defeating,” Scrivener says. “We only wanted to have a voice and the ability to persuade others to our view.”
The reforming process started almost immediately with the old-style chairman Robert Alexander QC taking on the Slate agenda and, for example, setting up a committee to review its constitution. The bar also took on the Government when it successfully judicially reviewed the Lord Chancellor, then Lord Hailsham, over the level of criminal legal aid fees in the spring of 1986.
Five years after the Slate had first infiltrated the council, Scrivener was elected chairman and Gareth Williams (now Lord Williams of Mostyn, current leader of the House of Lords) followed him. The group claimed to have achieved nearly all of its manifesto commitments: instituting greater democratic accountability through reforms of the decision-making process; introducing Counsel magazine as an independent voice for the profession; and instructing PR consultants to deal with the press for the first time. The group also introduced equal opportunities schemes for the first time.
A Bar Council spokesman recognises the Slate leadership as something of “a great leap forward” for the profession. “The key development was the separation of power of the Bar Council and the Inns of Court, and it's led to much greater autonomy for the council over the last 15 years,” he reckons.
De Wilde still believes that there is work to be done. “I don't think we got all the reforms right,” he acknowledges. In his recent statement, he claimed that “[the] poor, the weak and the injured” have not been so vulnerable in the last 50 years as they are now.
As de Wilde sees it, barristers doing publicly funded work are worse off than ever. Legal aid rates for criminal work have not risen since 1995 whereas, the silk notes, judges have seen their salaries shoot up by 30 per cent under Lord Irvine's term as Lord Chancellor. “The bar completely panders to the Government – this is appeasement, and appeasement never pays,” he claims.
However, many at the bar disagree that a return to the Slate's trade union-style approach is appropriate today. Council member and secretary of the Criminal Bar Association John Dodd, for example, believes that the bar's campaign on criminal fees has benefited from “hard work and quiet diplomacy”. He says: “I think the sensitive souls among us are conscious that we are not the only group competing for public funds and this strident tone doesn't sit easily with the calls doctors and nurses make, and diplomacy is more sensible and appropriate for the time in which we now live.”
The Slate disbanded in 1995 when it met for a last valedictory dinner to wind matters up. Bowley has charted the Slate's impact on the council. In its seven years of action, it fielded 75 candidates and all but one was elected successfully, and the 75th missed by only two votes.
So successful were the anti-establishment reformers that almost inevitably they in turn became the establishment. One was made a life peer, two became chairmen of the bar, one became a circuit leader, one a treasurer of the bar and eight took silk. However, only one – Mr Justice Munby – crossed over to the other side and joined the bench.
“He's a great friend of mine, but I'll never forgive him for taking the Queen's shilling,” says Bowley.

De Wilde's election statement

“The leaders no longer represent the great majority of the profession. Barristers doing publicly funded work have been ignored or betrayed. Legal aid has been destroyed. The work of family lawyers has been devalued. The earnings of the Criminal Bar have not risen for six years. The poor, the weak and the injured have not been so vulnerable for 50 years. The bar completely panders to the Government – this is appeasement, and appeasement never pays. If you want a change in direction, I will try and provide. I will need help.”