New Bar Chairman promises to focus on young Bar and ‘core’ practitioners’ needs

15 December 2016

The next Chairman of the Bar, Andrew Langdon QC, has said his focus for 2017 will be to address the threats to the junior Bar and to attend to the needs of 'core' practitioners. 

Delivering his inaugural speech at Middle Temple on Wednesday (14 December) evening, Andrew Langdon QC, who takes over from the current Chairman, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC on 1 January 2017, said that while new initiatives to diversify practices were welcomed the core of the profession remained the bedrock of the Bar. 

The Chairman-Elect said: "For the best of reasons, we have for years concentrated on trying to help those who want to diversify their practice: and on presenting alternative business models: and on enabling direct access. All these initiatives are important but as someone who has been aware of the effort expended on them I have joined those who eventually ask: 'What about the core?' The chambers model persists because it is economically efficient, and its ethos strong. Most barristers who work for public funds do not want to diversify: they believe in the value of what they do, they see the need for what they do, and they are extremely good at what they do. I fear that endless initiatives which push other models or suggest other fields of practice, well-meaning though they are, serve to alienate the core who feel, in consequence, left to their own devices.    

"It is important that we do not neglect the core. The self-employed Bar is 13,000 strong. Crime, Family and PI probably adds up to about 8 or 9,000 of those 13000. Add those that do county court commercial or contractual disputes: and employment tribunal work, run of the mill chancery or insolvency work, and you begin to see what we are all up to.  It is in those areas that we need to improve what we deliver. We should not neglect this, the bedrock of our profession. One of the missions of my Chairmanship is to try to provide leadership which focusses on the needs of this constituency; we need to be receptive to them. Many of these core areas of expertise have suffered from a lack of investment by successive governments in Legal Aid and in the service provided by courts and tribunals across the country." 

Andrew Langdon QC, a criminal law barrister based in Bristol at Guildhall Chambers and a former Leader of the Western Circuit, also used his speech to identify the risks to the young Bar, pointing out the profession is ageing.   

He said: "The statistics show that every five years since 1990 the size of the profession overall has increased, but in the last 10 years the number of those in practice under 10 years' call has slightly decreased, more markedly so for those under five years call. The reasons may be complex but one suspects that the withdrawal and reduction of legal aid funding, the increased use of in-house Higher Court Advocates, the changes to the civil costs regime, and the increases in court and tribunal fees with a resultant diminution in the number of cases litigated, are some of the factors that have deterred the recruitment and retention of junior barristers." 

The Chairman-Elect pointed to the potential impact on the junior Bar of Lord Justice Jackson's reforms as well as highlighting the need to open the Bar up to a wider talent base. He said: "Now, not only do we need to work to promote fair competition at the junior Bar, we need to continue to attract advocates with the greatest potential to join the Bar. To do that, we need to be open to all, and that requires social mobility. It requires those who have no financial support or security not to be deterred by the eye-watering cost of qualification. 

"We have an opportunity at long last to do something about our profession's entrance exam. We live in a time when aspiring barristers often approach the BPTC already heavily in debt. The current course providers charge too much and the failure rate is too high. It is plain that many who sign up for the course have little prospect of passing and an even lower prospect of obtaining pupillage. This is indefensible. The Council of the Inns of Court (COIC) proposal, supported by the Bar Council, is that a two-part exam, Part 1 of which can be taken relatively cheaply, with Part 2 only available to those that pass Part 1, is fairer, better value, and an obvious way of improving social mobility. I encourage all who have not done so to respond to the BSB's consultation, open until the end of January." 

Court reform 

The Chairman-Elect dealt with the far-reaching court reform programme in his speech, urging that "critics should not be side-lined on the basis that they lack vision." He said: "Two things are significant: one is the changes themselves amounting (not my word) to a 'Revolution'. The other is the way change is being effected. We are used to reform taking place by a formal process of consultation followed as appropriate by legislation. What is happening with the current reforms seems more akin to an organizational 'change management' programme for a FTSE 100 company. It feels as if we are in the hands of consultants. The process of change involves champions, some of them senior judges, and stake-holder leaders: and we are all encouraged to endorse the message. 

"Some of what is planned is not only sensible but long overdue. It need not be depicted in a revolutionary way - it is merely us catching up with the rest of society following years of under investment in technology. The Bar, far from being flummoxed by Digital Case working in the Crown Court, has readily and easily engaged with it, and has not been slow to point out how it could be improved, and how and in what critical respects it sometimes fails to deliver. But I emphasise much of what is being done is overdue - we are playing catch up. In the criminal courts none of this has sidelined the lawyers. Indeed, as always it is the co-operation of the lawyers that has enabled success where that has been achieved and where it is plainly sensible that success is achieved.  

"But, in the wider transformation programme, some of what is proposed is controversial, and the controversy is not around what is possible but rather what is desirable. It is important to emphasise that the critics should not be sidelined on the basis that they lack vision. It may rather be that they see all too well, but they do not like what they see. If we are to have a proper debate, we need to air our views." 

Andrew Langdon QC warned of a lack of Plan B on court reform, as well as his concerns over virtual justice. He said: "The rich complexity of what happens during the interaction of the community at court, presided over by a trusted judge we underestimate the value of at our peril.  We do it best when we are together in one place. Justice has a human face, and it's not a face on a screen." 

The full speech is available here.


Notes to Editors

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