Bar defeat poses regulation threat

FUTURE statutory regulation of the Bar is looming after the Bar Council's surprise defeat by members over its proposed complaints scheme.

Concern was expressed from all quarters, including the Legal Services Ombudsman, consumer bodies and the Labour Party, over the vote at the open meeting last week. The meeting was held because of opposition to the proposals.

Ombudsman Michael Barnes said: “It is very disappointing indeed. In the era of the Citizens' Charter there is an urgent need for the Bar to extend its current system to provide compensation to lay clients where appropriate.”

National Consumer Council director Ruth Evans said the NCC was “very disappointed that forward thinkers of the Bar have been out-voted by dinosaurs”. She said external regulation was “inevitable” if barristers could not make self-regulation work.

Paul Boateng MP, Labour legal services spokesman, called the vote “a missed opportunity of self-regulation”.

Issuing a clear warning, he said: “If the legal profession cannot put its own house in order, Parliament will be obliged to intervene to protect the public interest.”

The Bar Council vote to press ahead with its proposed scheme was lost by 188 to 104. It immediately announced a postal ballot of its entire 12,000 members over Christmas.

The proposal had already been criticised after adoption of an amendment by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) to restrict compensation only to complaints where there was a provable financial loss.

Bar chair Peter Goldsmith QC said the CBA and the Commercial Bar Association agreed the scheme was necessary to show policy makers and the consumer lobby that the Bar can regulate itself.

“If we do not, then a scheme far more draconian…including doubtless the loss of advocates' immunity, will be imposed on us from outside. The choice is the Bar's,” he said.

However, Ronald Thwaites QC, head of chambers at 10 King's Bench Walk and the barrister whose opposition to the proposals forced the open meeting, intends to take his campaign to the profession nationally to kill off the proposals and encourage a review of the current misconduct scheme. He says he is supported by at least 400 barristers so far.

“We have an overriding duty to the court rather than the client, and are the only profession to be under that restraint. The consumer associations and the Labour Party, when they have a better understanding of our special situation, will no longer be clamouring for these changes.”

Ballot papers go out on 12 December, with a return deadline for 9 January. It is only the third ballot in 10 years, the last being on Inns rents in 1991. The cost of the ballot will be around £10,000.