Complaints against barristers on the up

The number of complaints against barristers rose last year by 260, by far the largest increase since the regime to improve standards at the bar was launched five years ago

There were 829 complaints in 2001 against 569 in the previous year and 551 in 1997.
Lay complaints, which rose from 450 in 2000 to 464 last year, have almost returned to the 1997 level. Solicitor complaints remained at an average of 46 a year between 1997 and 2000, but last year they rose dramatically to 72.
Since 1997, there has been a slight increase in the number of criminal defendant and prisoner complaints, from 100 to 102. Family law complainants have dropped slightly, from 70 to 66, while other civil litigants have increased from 191 to 224.
Complaints by barristers have dropped significantly from 18 in 1997 to just five last year, and in 2001 there were no complaints against barristers by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Legal Aid Board as opposed to two and four respectively in 1997.
The dramatic increase in complaints can be accounted for in part by complaints arising out of the introduction of the Barristers' Practising Certificate. Last year, the year of its introduction, there were 299 complaints.
Michael Scott, the lay complaints commissioner to the Bar Council, last week wrote in his annual report on complaints against barristers, in which these figures were contained, that “the increase in the total reflects the Bar Council's determination to make an example of those who failed to pay for their practising certificates”. He added, however, that barristers have heeded this warning.
Despite barristers' claims that last year's court ruling, which did away with barristers' immunity from being sued for their conduct in court, would have little impact on the profession, a special adjudication panel handled 19 such complaints. Thirteen were penalised, with fines ranging from £250 to £3,000, and they were often accompanied by an apology. Six allegations were dismissed.
Scott concluded that barristers with grievances against colleagues make excessive use of his office. “Usually [the complaints] involve the aftermath of a dissolution of chambers, a dispute over fee collection or non-payment of rent. Sometimes clerks are involved,” he said.
He made a similar complaint against complainant solicitors. “I do find it tiresome when solicitors dress up what in effect is a fee dispute to be a complaint of misconduct,” he added, saying that such solicitors suffer from “astonishing inadequacy” to the extent of failing to respond to Scott's letters.
Most prisoner complaints came from sex offenders. “The matrimonial complaints range from child contact difficulties to financial shenanigans by the other side,” Scott added.
Some 113 of the decisions that Scott dismissed were reviewed. He received criticism over his handling of two cases and was asked to reconsider a further four complaints. Nine per cent of complaints took longer than 12 months to complete.
Scott concluded: “If the Bar Council can demonstrate that it's not resting on any laurels, but looking for continuous improvement, then it will earn the public confidence.” He said that improvements could be made to the Bar Council Secretariat, and recommended that it set up a helpline in addition to its existing “very efficient” telephone service.
A Mori survey of the system is due to be published in mid-2002. Scott predicts a rise in complaints arising out of the bar giving favour to direct access, a feature of the Office of Fair Trading report on competition at the bar.