To be continued

Taking on its responsibility for ensuring the standards of the UK bar, the Bar Council is making continuing professional development compulsory. Jane Creaton reports

As part of its commitment to improve and maintain the standards of legal services offered by the bar, the Bar Council is in the process of phasing in a compulsory continuing professional development (CPD) scheme for all practising barristers. The bar's Code of Conduct states that a barrister must not accept any brief or instructions “if he/she lacks sufficient experience or competence to handle the matter”. CPD provides a means for barristers to comply with this professional obligation by maintaining and enhancing their knowledge and skills in existing and new areas of practice.
The Bar Council has a responsibility to provide a framework to enable all practising barristers to meet acceptable standards of competence throughout their careers, and to ensure that individual barristers are able to demonstrate compliance with these standards.
New Practitioners' Programme
The first steps toward the introduction of a mandatory CPD policy were taken with the introduction of the New Practitioners' Programme in October 1997. All barristers commencing practice at the self-employed bar were required to undertake a minimum of 42 hours of CPD in advocacy training, ethics, case preparation and procedure and substantive law or training relating to practice.
The programme has now been extended to all barristers who commence practice at either the employed or self-employed bar. Changes have also been made to the scheme itself. The core compulsory advocacy training and ethics components have been retained, but a greater flexibility in completing the remainder of the programme has been introduced.
Following the report of the Southwell Working Party on CPD in 1997, the Bar Council unanimously approved the resolution that all practising barristers should undertake CPD throughout their careers. The Established Practitioners' Programme will require all barristers to undertake a minimum of 12 hours of continuing professional development each year. Barristers who have completed the New Practitioners' Programme have already commenced the scheme and all practising barristers will be included by 1 January 2005.
Established Practitioners' Programme
The Established Practitioners' Programme is intended to be as straightforward and flexible as possible, and to leave barristers a wide element of choice of the kinds of CPD in which they engage. A third of the CPD requirement can by fulfilled by delivering or attending activities provided by the Inns, Circuits, specialist bar associations, employers, chambers or commercial providers accredited by the Bar Council. The remaining two-thirds of the requirement can be met through accredited activities or from other means of improving skills and knowledge, such as writing articles for learned journals.
Barristers will be expected to keep a record of all activities undertaken and to submit the record with their application for renewal of their practising certificate. The Bar Council will undertake random audits each year with the aim of monitoring compliance and providing advice and information to practitioners. Any barrister who does not meet the requirements can be referred to the Professional Complaints and Conduct Committee for breach of the code.
In recommending the scheme to the Bar Council, the Education and Training Committee made it clear that the priority was to promote the benefits of CPD to the practitioner and to the profession as a whole. It is anticipated that the need to seek the imposition of any sanction will arise rarely and only as a last resort.
Future developments
The current and proposed arrangements for CPD for barristers were reviewed by the Collyear Committee in its report 'Blueprint for the Future'. One of the key themes of the report was that “the maintenance and enhancement of standards is reinforced by practitioners undertaking regular CPD that relates to their needs and requirements”.
The committee proposed a system of self-assessment and peer review that will enable barristers to reach informed judgements about the extent of their experience and competence, reviewing their past performance, analysing their learning needs and identifying which CPD activities might be appropriate.
The committee did not underestimate what was involved in introducing this system to a profession that is composed in the main of self-employed professionals. However, it concluded: “Success will come when each individual barrister perceives it [CPD] as a contribution to the enhancement of standards for the profession as a whole and the esteem with which it is regarded… When complete, the committee is convinced that the benefits to the profession as a whole will be substantial.”
Many new practitioners look to the Inns, circuits and specialist bar associations as the primary providers of relevant and affordable CPD, but an increasing number of employers and chambers are obtaining accreditation for their in-house training. Online training is a cost-effective and convenient method for busy practitioners – Delia Venables' beginners and advanced internet studies for lawyers, for example, are very popular. The Bar Council also accredits some overseas courses and the annual course on Litigation in the European Court, run by the Trier Academy of European Law, is always fully subscribed.
Case study
The aim of the South Eastern Circuit Advocacy Course is to encourage and develop the highest standards of advocacy among practitioners. The week-long course is accredited for 42 hours of CPD, including six hours of advocacy training and three hours of ethics; therefore, attendees can satisfy all the requirements of the New Practitioner's Programme in one highly demanding and intensive week.
Participants observe demonstrations, undertake case analysis, prepare skeleton arguments and practise advocacy skills in all areas associated with a trial, including interlocutory work. The experienced advocacy trainers include senior juniors, silks and judges, who deliver immediate critique in the classroom followed by a private video critique. On the last day of the course, a full trial takes place for criminal practitioners before a judge and jury, and for civil practitioners before a High Court judge or deputy.
The course also includes sessions on handling expert witnesses and vulnerable witnesses, as well as on ethical issues and guidance. It is now gaining international recognition and the United Nations has sponsored prosecutors from the War Crimes Tribunals in the Hague and in Rwanda to attend the course.
Jane Creaton is senior education officer at the Bar Council