No place like home

The effects of devolution on the Welsh bar has been more limited than in other areas. Ronan Hughes reports on the battle to keep work from the clutches of the London sets

Just over two years ago Wales celebrated a new voice for its people. Devolution created the Welsh National Assembly, offering the country a level of independence not seen since the 1830s. But for the Welsh bar, the impact of devolution has been limited. There is only a small amount of work emanating from the assembly itself, and while the addition of a Mercantile Court is welcome, there is mounting concern at the amount of work that continues to be shipped off-circuit.
“It's a chicken and egg situation,” says Huw Davies, senior clerk at Cardiff set 30 Park Place. “Local law firms claim that we don't have the expertise, and then they refuse to let us prove them wrong.”
Philip Howell-Richardson, head of litigation at Morgan Cole, says: “We don't want to take work off-circuit – it doesn't make sense to do so, but sometimes you have no option. We have to provide a high level of service and experience to our clients, and if that can't be fulfilled locally, we have to look to London.”
Crispin Cormack of Swansea set Angel Chambers is also trying to prevent work leaving home turf. “We've tried widening the eyes of solicitors,” he says. “We've tried telling them they don't have to send briefs to London, but they seem to think we can't cope with the work.”
This message, though, is far from falling on deaf ears, with a string of leading figures now championing the cause. Senior presiding judge of the circuit John Thomas, resident judge of the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre Graham Jones and Mercantile Court judge Nicholas Chambers QC are among those in favour of Wales theoretically representing itself.
Consolidation is widely regarded as the best way for the local bar to offer specialist teams and to protect its long-term future. Temple was created out of the merger between Cardiff set 32 Park Place and Newport-based Temple Chambers in September 1999 – it now has 41 tenants and posts an annual turnover in the region of £3.5m. This set, however, will be dwarfed if the proposed merger between Numbers 9 and 30 Park Place is completed. Senior clerk at 9 Park Place Jim Williams says it is an exciting time. This year three tenants were awarded silk – a first in Welsh history – and the three are now looking forward to the completion of the deal. “We're hopeful that the merger will be completed by the end of this month,” says Williams. “It will help us build on what we've already achieved. Within 5-10 years I expect there'll be two supersets in Cardiff. I also think those chambers in Pontypridd will be absorbed. Although they're surviving, they can't expand on their own.”
Chambers in Swansea also recognise that consolidation is inevitable. Gwyn Davies, senior clerk at Pendragon Chambers, says: “There should only really be one big set in Swansea – the only problem is that so many people don't get on, leaving the reality of that happening as being very slim.”
Cormack at Angel Chambers says: “Swansea would do well to have just two [sets] in the future. In today's market you can't stagnate, and those looking to expand will have to look to other sets as there's not enough work to go it alone.”
The tightening market is making it increasingly difficult for chambers to offer future barristers a pupillage. “I get letters all the time from desperate people wanting pupillages, all scrambling together for the same few opportunities,” says Judith Taylor, clerk at Carmarthen chambers 30 Spilman Street. “Five people recently completed a pupillage at one of the big Cardiff sets, and they couldn't give all of them tenancies, so instead of picking one or two, they had to let all of them go. It's a terrible situation.”
It's a view supported by Brian Simpson, tenant at Pontypridd set Phoenix Chambers. He cut his teeth as a junior barrister in London before joining the ranks in Wales. “The standard of the junior bar is deteriorating with the growth in solicitor advocates. They're getting to do less, and find earning a living very difficult,” he says.
Leader of the circuit Patrick Harrington QC recognises the changes, but pledges to confront them and to continue “to iron five court shirts every Sunday”. He says that, given the number of changes afoot, the circuit remains buoyant. “There's a good spirit at the moment. Instead of fighting change, we're keen to embrace and adapt to it,” he says.
“I think we're more cohesive now than at any point in the past.”
Not everyone is convinced. Julie Vallack, a barrister at St David's chambers in Swansea, says: “We're struggling in every area. Graduated fees in family law are causing grave concern, and we recognise the difficulties.”
One thing that has come to fruition, and which is most certainly pushing Wales forward, is the addition of its own mercantile commercial court. A significant step, the Mercantile Court provides the final stage in providing Wales and Chester with a full range of civil courts.
Now 18 months old, it represents the changing face of Cardiff in particular, which is attracting corporate investment like never before. The National Assembly and a booming development fund have laid the foundations for an increase in civil and commercial work.
Crucially important to the success of the court is the reputation of its judge. Nicholas Chambers QC is held in high regard by both the bar and local solicitors.
“He's already shown he's more than capable. He's undertaken the challenge and proven he can give the court the reputation it needs,” says Howell-Richardson.
There is also confidence that his leadership will lead to a steady improvement in the quality and service of the local bar.
“He's a very strong leader, and you can see that already in the way he encourages everyone to develop their experience,” claims Harrington.
So, what is the best way forward for the Welsh bar? Perhaps Howell-Richardson has the answer. “What Cardiff lacks most is a civil set,” he says. “There's too much dependence and focus placed on criminal work, and that leaves chambers lacking the level of expertise we look for. We need direction on difficult points of law, and unfortunately there are few who can provide this. A set of civil specialists would help turn this around.”

The Welsh Bar
With half of the country's 300-odd barristers based there, Cardiff is the obvious centre for the legal profession in Wales. There are four sets, although that will become just three if the merger of 9 Park Place and 30 Park Place is completed as expected later this month. Most work is general common law – crime, civil and family – although there is some commercial work, handled mainly by 9 and 33 Park Place. The addition of the Mercantile Court is also giving this area a boost.

Second only to Cardiff, the city accommodates four chambers, but is dominated by three. Iscoed is the largest with 31 tenants, although this may not necessarily be the case for long – rumours of a merger between the leading sets are rife. Swansea has much more of a focus on core areas of work – civil, crime and family – than in Cardiff, with fewer specialists. It is fairly buoyant, but finds it needs to compete for work with Cardiff.

Chester (England)
The north of Wales is serviced by three sets in Chester. The biggest is Nicholas Street Chambers, which houses 30 tenants, including three silks. The Chester area accounts for around 20 per cent of Welsh barristers. There has been some talk of Wales wanting to break away from Chester on the circuit, but this has been discounted after years of working successfully hand in hand.

The rest of Wales
Two sets in Pontypridd and one in Carmarthen service other local solicitors. They are much smaller than those in Cardiff or Swansea, with five or less tenants in each. They struggle for work more and are reliant on local contacts. There is much less scope for expansion and some say it would not come as a shock if the Pontypridd sets in particular followed Newport's Temple Chamber's lead by becoming amalgamated into a larger set.

National statistics

Average earnings per chambers: £668,391
Average chambers' overheads: £113,626
Average tenant's overheads: £80,206
Average net income: £474,557
Source: The Bar Council  
Chamber's name Head of chambers Tenants Turnover
9 Park Place, Cardiff Ian Murphy QC 35 £3.5m
30 Park Place, Cardiff John Jenkins QC 38 £5m
A33 Park Place, Cardiff John Charles Rees QC 34 £3.5m
Temple Chambers, Cardiff David Aubrey QC 41 £3.5m
Angel Chambers, Swansea Tom Glanville Jones 20 NA
Iscoed Chambers, Swansea Trefor Davies 31 £2.5m
Pendragon Chambers, Swansea Lorraine Roblin 14 £1m
St David's Chambers, Swansea Julie Vallack 4 NA
Phoenix Chambers, Pontypridd Dominic Boothroyd 4 £100,000
Windsor Chambers, Pontypridd Sandra Veryard 4 NA
30 Spilman Street, Carmarthen Richard Griffiths 5 NA
White Friars Chambers, Chester John Hedgecoe 16 NA
Nicholas Street Chambers, Chester Janet Case 30 NA
Sedan House Chambers, Chester Meirion Lewis-Jones 29 NA