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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Strength in numbers

Strength in numbers


The South East Circuit is an influential representative body whose reputation and success is down to effective delegation, close connections and collaborative problem solving. Jenny Ramage reports

'Outside London, there is a feeling among some people that the South East Circuit is London. It is not. We ensure that it isn't.' This is a message that the leader of the circuit, Stephen Leslie QC, is keen to convey. Too many people, he says, think of the South East Circuit simply as 'London with a bolt-on'. But this perception is far from the reality: just four of the circuit's 11 county divisions '“ or 'messes', as they are better known '“ are in London.

The 11 messes are divided up as follows: in London, there's the Central London mess, Surrey & South London, North London, and the Central Criminal Court. Outside London the messes are Kent, Sussex, Thames Valley, Essex, East Anglia, Hertfordshire & Bedfordshire, and Cambridge & Peterborough. The messes vary in size enormously '“ Cambridge & Peterborough is the smallest, with around 60 members, whereas the Central London mess, covering Inner London, Southwark, Middlesex, Blackfriars and Woolwich Crown Courts and the Central London County Court, is larger than the whole of the Wales & Chester Circuit.

Encompassing over 200 sets, the South East Circuit is the largest of all the UK circuits, representing 40 per cent of the UK self-employed Bar. Its heavy influence in all Bar-related issues is evidenced in its close involvement in every important consultation and report, and its participation in the majority of pilot programmes in the civil and criminal courts. The Quality Assurance for Advocates scheme, for example, is being piloted in the Inner London Crown Court, and split-shift sittings in the criminal courts are being tested in Croydon and Blackfriars.

Making a comeback

Before 1990, the circuit had fallen into enormous decline, but the role of the messes has been reintroduced '“ thanks, says Leslie, to the efforts of Robert Seabrook QC, leader of the circuit from 1989 to 1992 (and later, in 1994, chairman of the Bar).

'He reconstituted the messes in rather a powerful fashion, giving them electoral power and a collegiate vote, whereas all other circuits have a universal suffrage,' Leslie explains.

The circuit today is much less London-centric, with elected members from all the messes meeting regularly to discuss issues involving the circuit as a whole.

As leader, Leslie is pivotal in all of this. But he is not without help: he is assisted by a deputy, otherwise known as the circuit recorder, whose role is to represent and co-ordinate all meetings of the circuit and elections to the committee, and to liaise with the Bar messes and members of the circuit who wish to raise issues with the leader. Rosina Cottage, a junior based at Gough Square, is the present recorder '“ she is in effect Leslie's 'right-hand woman'.

Cottage, in turn, is assisted by the junior recorder; currently Emily Verity, a young barrister of six years' call (who is, purely by coincidence, also based at Gough Square). Part of the junior's role is to organise a reception, held each May at Lincoln's Inn, for the resident judges of all Crown and county courts on the circuit, and to organise the annual dinner at Lincoln's Inn Great Hall for the end of June.

'With over 300 guests, many of whom are eminent in rank and reputation, this is no mean feat,' says Verity. The junior's responsibilities include delivering a short speech at the dinner, following which the leader and a guest speaker '“ this year the much-loved Mr Justice Penry-Davy '“ entertain the crowd and propose toasts.

Verity also has responsibility for taking minutes at meetings, assisting on consultation responses and helping with circuit events, working alongside the leader and recorder. She also represents the younger side of the Bar which, she reminds us, 'is under a great deal of pressure; it can be quite depressing, so it's good for young barristers to know there are people negotiating on their behalf'.

When protocols fall down

As recorder, Rosina Cottage's role includes co-ordinating the circuit's regular 'roadshows'; these involve 20 or so barristers in any particular mess meeting after court to discuss local concerns.

'Protocols can fall down,' Cottage explains, 'and this can cause a great deal of difficulty for practitioners in the courts who don't know who to raise it with.' The recorder is the port of call for many such concerns, but where appropriate the issue will be escalated to the leader, who can then liaise with the specialist Bar associations, the MoJ, the DPP, CPS or any other relevant body to try to resolve the issue at hand.

Being barristers themselves, the leader, recorder and junior recorder understand the kinds of difficulties their peers face. 'As you go about your business working with the courts, every day you deal with the case in hand: the witnesses, the evidence, the legal argument,' says Cottage. 'Everybody involved is focusing on that, but the process of running the courts and all the relationships are very complex, and it requires representatives to liaise.'

Problems, she says, can range from concerns over criminal public funding to issues with county or Crown Court listing, which can cause huge problems for the local Bar and for those visiting. 'This may seem trivial but they can be hugely difficult as they can affect peoples' incomes massively,' says Cottage, 'for example, if the courts have listed six cases on the same day but only two get heard, all the barristers end up having to attend, fully prepared, yet they are not being paid for their attendance.'

In dealing with the issues, there are many different levels of liaison. Some problems can be dealt with by the chairman of that particular mess, some will go to the recorder, and some will get passed to the leader. 'If you select it at the right level you do tend to get enormous cooperation,' says Leslie. 'You build up a reputation with the people over time for the fact you are doing things properly, so that you are a proper emissary of the circuit '“ which is very important on this circuit as it's so large and which, in one sense, is disparate, because what may be a problem in one mess is not necessarily a problem in another.'

Also tackling the issues on the circuit are its various committees. Each mess has its own chairman and committee; in addition, there is an 'executive committee', comprising the leader, recorder, junior, treasurer and other senior members of the circuit, which meets once a month. Meanwhile the 'circuit committee' includes the chairman of each of the Bar messes and other elected representatives, which meets once a quarter.

But this doesn't preclude ad hoc meetings. 'One of the things we did this year,' says Leslie, 'was to hold a dinner for all the chairs of the Bar messes, and we spent the evening together discussing the various circuit matters.' Leslie feels this was a very useful exercise. 'It meant that we as the officers were able to bring to bear the knowledge we already had, and that which we were able to pick up, to resolve problems that applied to Mess A when the same problem arose in Mess B,' he says. 'It is quite an exciting thing when you can actually do some good.'

Crime vs civil

Leslie is on a recruitment drive. One characteristic of the circuit currently is that the messes outside of London largely comprise people who do crime rather than civil work. 'Most people who do civil on the South East Circuit tend to practice from chambers in London, even though they may go out on circuit to act in county courts,' he says. 'I am very anxious that people from London who do civil work may feel that they don't need to join the South East Circuit because they have their own specialist Bar associations.'

The circuit, he says, carries a completely different function: its purpose is to support and represent the interests of all barristers on the circuit '“ be it self-employed or employed, across all practice areas; so there is involvement from the podium to the audience no matter what practice.

'There are good reasons to join, and I am anxious to get people from all sorts,' says Leslie, 'because the power of the matters we've raised before is only useful and apparent if we are seen as one wholly homogenous and individual organisation. It is very important for us to keep the circuit as rounded as possible.'

Education in advocacy

Further evidence that the circuit is about more than just crime can be found in its first-class education and training schemes. Once a year, barristers from all over the UK '“ indeed, all over the world '“ gather at Keble Collge, Oxford to participate in its internationally acclaimed, intensive advocacy course '“ considered by many to be the advocacy flagship of the Bar (https:// www. about/keble-course). Young barristers are instructed in the art of advocacy, from appellate right down to first instance, by A-grade High Court judges, senior juniors and silks '“ including, this year, Timothy Dutton QC '“ and experts in various fields including medical and accountancy for cross-examination practice. Notably, the majority of Keble delegates are civil practitioners.

The circuit has also recently introduced the 'Masters of Advocacy' programme '“ a quarterly Q&A session whereby the highest-profile civil and criminal barristers are questioned by people of considerable experience themselves, imparting their expertise to other, more junior, barristers. This year, Jonathan Sumption QC gave tips on appellate advocacy with questions from Tim Dutton QC. 'It was more than sold out,' says Leslie.

The circuit's membership is increasing; proof that it has picked itself up from the doldrums of the 1980s and is now a thriving organisation at the heart of the UK Bar, bolstered by the strong links between the various messes on the circuit.

As Leslie concludes, 'the strength of the circuit is in its membership and all its parts'.