Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

BSB risks eroding public confidence in the Bar, say barristers

BSB risks eroding public confidence in the Bar, say barristers


Drawing attention to potential impact of commercial pressures may create new risk, reply barristers

Barristers are concerned by the Bar Standards Board's (BSB) view that commercial pressures could compromise their ethics at the Bar.

Last month the BSB launched its Strategic Plan 2016-19 and Risk Outlook with barristers, representative bodies of the Bar, legal consumer organisations, and diversity groups all in attendance.

The regulator's new risk-based approach centres on three strategic priorities that include: meeting consumer needs; improving diversity at the Bar; and responding to commercial pressures on legal services providers.

The BSB believes cuts to legal aid have placed additional financial pressure on barristers and could place clients at risk. Such commercial pressures, the BSB says, are likely to compromise the ethical standards of some barristers and chambers as they look to stay afloat.

However, this provoked consternation among barristers who said they were concerned that in emphasising the risk, providers are likely to compromise their ethical standards, which could reduce public confidence in the Bar.

A new - and very real - risk may be created, it was heard, while some barristers expressed worry that their integrity could be jeopardised. To combat the risk, participants agreed that a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of the risks, and how to monitor and mitigate them, was needed.

Attendees also highlighted how cuts to legal aid have caused a steep growth in demand for free legal advice services from organisations such as the Bar Pro Bono Unit, which has led to constrained supply and slower turnaround times.

Further, a lack of understanding from consumers of what legal support they needed has led to an increase in self-representation, to the potential detriment of the individual and the legal system.

To improve the situation, participants pointed to ensuring barristers are better equipped to work with vulnerable consumers and litigants in person.

One barrister said: 'The onus should be on us - not the consumer - to ask the right questions so that we can provide the right representation.'

Attendees also shared their concerns about how the lack of diversity at the Bar presented a major risk to access to justice and to public confidence in the Bar and legal system.

Participants recognised that the issues are part of a wider societal challenge and recommended mandatory training for all barristers in diversity and discrimination. Training in unconscious bias was also suggested.

The Bar Council welcomed the report and echoed the BSB's concerns for equality and diversity in the profession. Chairman, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said: 'It is encouraging to see that the BSB is helping to bring these issues to the fore. This is a huge testament to the Bar Council's success in shaping the equality and diversity and social mobility agenda at the Bar.'