Northern lights

“The best barrister in the world” is how Derek Hatton described his counsel, the outgoing leader of the Northern Circuit Rodney Klevan QC. Frederick West was also due to be represented by him before he decided his own fate instead. Klevan is the latest in a long line of eminent criminal silks to have come from the Northern Circuit. FE Smith (now Lord Birkenhead), Hartley Shawcross (Lord Shawcross) and George Carman QC were all Northern Circuiteers.

One of the most respected figures of the circuit, Klevan steps down as leader later this year. His successor is not yet known though, if he decides to stand for election, Richard Henriques QC (leading prosecution counsel for the James Bulger case) is the popular choice.

Whoever is chosen to lead the Northern Circuit for the next four years will face the same problems that affect the other five circuits. Green Papers, White Papers, the Woolf Report, contingency fee proposals and changes in legal aid have all made their way North.

Fortunately, under Klevan's guidance and that of his predecessor John Rowe QC, the Northern Circuit is well-prepared to cope with the changes.

The 600 or so barristers who practise on the circuit do not want for briefs. While there has always been an abundance of criminal work, Liverpool and Manchester also give rise to a wealth of commercial, Chancery and general civil litigation; in a recent judgment in the Court of Appeal the Master of the Rolls described Liverpool County Court as one of the busiest in the country. To cope with this caseload local practice directions for case management have been drawn up by the court following consultation with local solicitors and counsel. Strict timetables are set for the conduct of cases.

Competition among local solicitors for work is robust. However, the sudden demise of Deacon Goldrein Green was a salutary warning against hasty over-expansion. Well-known Liverpool firm E Rex Makin & Co has resisted expansion and has operated successfully for many years from one office in the city centre.

Northern pride recently took a blow following recent criticism in the legal press about the Provincial Bar. The provinces replied in Counsel magazine and fighting for the Northern Circuit was its deputy leader Michael Black QC. He stoutly defended the northern Bar, describing such criticism as “both misconceived and unrepresentative”. He also cited a Manchester Business School survey of solicitors in the North West which found a 92 per cent satisfaction rate with the northern Bar, notably better than that of London counsel.

Apart from fiercely guarding its reputation, the Northern Circuit is jealously protective of its traditions. First established in the 12th century it has been in its present form, consisting of Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, since 1876. And it is a convivial circuit, with regular messes in Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Carlisle. So close-knit is the circuit that if any counsel should pull a fast one on another, word gets round quickly. Equally, good news can travel fast among solicitors about able counsel.

Given that living is cheaper here than in London, chambers in Liverpool and Manchester attract a great number of pupillage applications. To grossly paraphrase Dr Johnson, a barrister who is tired of London should head north west.