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Andrew Langdon QC, Chairman-Elect of the Bar: How the Bar punched above its weight at the Party Conferences

Andrew Langdon QC 

Whatever your politics, the Labour and Conservative party conferences this year were, for different reasons, bound to be of interest. I attended both with the small Bar Council delegation. Candidly, I did not really know what to expect. For a variety of reasons, I came away impressed. I witnessed repeated examples of the Bar punching above its weight. The fact is we were able to articulate the public interest on a range of issues with clarity. People listened. There is always room for cynicism, but that should not and does not prevent us from making our case to those in a position to do something about it. 

Events in the hall were to varying degrees of interest to the media, but the activity in the some of the fringe meetings was pertinent to the future of the profession and those we serve. The prevalence of such gatherings was a reminder, if one is necessary, of the central importance to our society of what we all do on a daily basis. There were a range of debates which touched upon access to justice, the rule of law, legal aid, pro bono work, public legal education, alternative dispute resolution, legal services regulation, and many other such critical topics. These debates attracted a notable variety of experts and politicians and were invariably well-attended, sometimes packed to overflowing. 

The Bar Council team had secured a place on the platform for the Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC, at an impressive number of these events. The profile of the Bar was thereby projected to a number of influential policy makers and pressure groups. Sometimes it was necessary firmly to correct a serious misapprehension, often asserted with enormous but misplaced confidence by another member of the panel, or member of the audience. At other times we were able to illustrate with practical, vivid examples the consequences of misguided policy, current or proposed, on those we represent, as well as on those who are unable or deterred from obtaining representation. Overwhelmingly the Bar's position was understood, and it appeared largely to be appreciated.  

It is important to report that we often worked with the Law Society' team to try to provide a fair and full representation of the interests of each branch of the profession. Robert Bourns, the Law Society's President is a man I have known for many years as a fellow practitioner in Bristol. He is an impressive ambassador for solicitors. It is perfectly obvious that we benefit from close cooperation, and that cooperation was exemplified by joint efforts at a number of the key fringe events to explain the reality of the work we do, and of the work we want to do, in the public interest.   

In addition to these gatherings, each day was packed with prearranged meetings with the key people.  So in Birmingham we met separately with Sir Oliver Heald QC MP the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, Lord Keen QC the new Ministry of Justice spokesperson in the Lords, the Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP, the Solicitor General Robert Buckland QC MP and Dominic Grieve QC MP. We also had useful discussions at an event co-sponsored by the Bar Council and Law Society with Bob Neil MP, the Chair of the Commons Justice Committee and with Alex Chalk MP, a barrister and  active member of the Committee. 

In Liverpool with Labour we met separately with the Shadow Chancellor Richard Burgon MP, Lord Falconer QC, Lord Bach, and  Chris Elmore MP, a new member of the Justice Committee.

In each of these meetings with politicians we sought to do two things. First, to listen to the predictions they were willing to make as to the future of each of the threats and opportunities that our profession faces. Second to press the Bar's case, flagging up or further underlining our points of concern. Where, as was often the case, we appeared to have a sympathetic ear we provided critical headline information that may not have been known or understood.  As you would expect, we have offered to supply continuing assistance to further a better understanding of our position. 

We repeatedly pointed to the benefit to the public interest of the policy changes we seek.  For example, we continually pressed for an abolition or reduction in court fees and a meaningful review of LASPO, now widely accepted by all parties to have brought about unacceptable consequences. We pressed for rapid progress on our efforts to bring about a new AGFS scheme to replace the discredited current scheme.  Whilst supporting investment in modernisation and digitisation, we pointed to the need to re-invest in other aspects of infrastructure which will otherwise fail to deliver adequate justice whatever advances are made in technology.    

Not all that we did will bear fruit. But in the public interest, the Bar's voice needs to be heard at these gatherings. The key people in each party have heard what we have to say. We need, relentlessly if necessary, to continue to make the case.