Last week's OFT report is glib and dogged in its ignorance of how the interests of justice play a role in the issues at stake. No credible assessment of the public interest benefits, arising from the OFT's suggested changes, has been produced.
People are more than just consumers – they are citizens who require the protection of a strong framework for justice, including an independent legal profession.
The Bar Council supports the promotion of a competitive market in legal services, subject to safeguards in the public interest. However, the OFT and its consultants fail to appreciate the depth and scale of the self-reform programme undertaken at the bar in the last decade.
The BarDirect scheme has been going from strength to strength and gives clients the benefit of direct access to a barrister where this would cut costs and where it would benefit the public. However, the fact is that blanket direct access is likely to present no advantage to the public on cost grounds.
The MDP debate has shown widespread opposition on public interest grounds. MDPs would compromise the confidentiality of legal advice to clients, which is an important protection. Indeed, the OFT seems to question the very principle of professional privilege, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of the safeguards it creates.
MDPs would also give the economic upper hand to large accountancy firms, reducing client choice. “One-stop shop” is an appealing slogan, but the reality would be very different. Forcing barristers into partnership would reduce the fierce competition between some 10,000 individuals and reduce client choice.
Allowing barristers to advertise “success rates” would deter counsel from taking on difficult but deserving cases and would be a major detriment to the public interest.
On QCs, Sir Leonard Peach has already reviewed this issue in some depth, and recommended that assessment for the rank should continue to be based on professional competence. Public confidence in the system is reflected in the appointment of silks to conduct public inquiries on everything from child abuse to corruption in local government. n
Roy Amlot QC is the chairman of the Bar Council