In his inaugural address, Nick Vineall KC stated that “the Bar Standards Board (BSB) regulates barristers, not chambers” and, whilst this statement is one that the Bar Standards Board has itself agreed with, it is now consulting with the profession on how it can take forward a series of initiatives to “clarify [its] regulatory expectations of chambers”.
We can all probably agree with the BSB that “chambers play an important role in setting cultural and behavioural standards for the profession”. However, what you may not agree with is the assertion that, for the profession’s regulatory body to properly discharge its functions, it should be requiring chambers to meet preferred (minimum) standards and holding “chambers to account and [taking] action on non-compliance”.
To reduce the significant regulatory burden of direct and indirect costs on the profession, Nick also made a strong case that barristers should not be paying for the same things to be done twice. In other words, there should be no unnecessary overlap in outputs between the BSB and the Bar Council. He also urged the BSB to focus on problems that exist, rather than those that are imagined.
Whilst it is certainly true that there is room for improvement in the area of chambers management, it is arguable that the ‘problems’ that barristers face in their respective capacities as business owners cannot be resolved simply by improving the levels of support that they receive from the Bar Council, Circuits, Specialist Bar Associations (SBAs), and others organisations relevant to the profession such as the Legal Practice Management Association (LPMA) and the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC).
Identifying the issues
So, what are the issues and how can we tackle them?
In March 2023, the Bar Council established a Chambers Management Working Group (now Panel) formed of twelve members of the Bar, the LPMA, and the IBC, and led by joint chairs Nicola Rushton KC (Deputy Head of Hailsham Chambers) and Paul Newhall (Chief Executive of Landmark Chambers).
The Working Group was tasked with establishing what information and services designed to assist barristers and chambers professionals in the effective management of chambers, including in terms of regulatory and legislative compliance, were already available to them through the Bar Council and other organisations. It was also invited to make a series of recommendations that would form part of a long-term programme of work to improve the Bar Council’s support in this area.
During its operation, the Working Group undertook several pieces of research to inform its recommendations, including interviews with representatives from 32 different sets of chambers, and participating in and feeding back on the BSB roundtables. The Working Group also compiled complete lists of the documents required by chambers and the chambers management support made available to the profession through the Bar Council, BSB, SBAs, Circuits, LPMA, IBC, and other relevant organisations.
Themes and recommendations
Through its research, the Working Group identified several emerging themes in the areas of regulation and compliance, recruitment and training, and governance and financial management and, from those themes, it recommended that the Bar Council:
- Publishes a complete list of the documents relevant to chambers management.
- Produces a comprehensive set of template policies and complementary guidance.
- Responds to the Bar Standards Board’s consultation on the regulation of barristers in chambers.
- Implements an email-based Chambers Management Enquiry Service.
- Reviews, rebrands, and relaunches the Ethics and Practice Hub.
- Produces an Insider Guide to Chambers Management.
- Publishes a comprehensive Chambers Governance Principles Guide.
- Investigates the possible creation of a commercial jobs board and/or Mini Pupillage Gateway.
The Working Group endorsed several existing activities of the Bar Council, including the production of information and guidance relating to cybersecurity, delivery of ‘soft skill’ training for junior members of the profession; promotion of wellbeing services and resources; development of guidance for chambers relating to the ‘post-pandemic’ working environment; production of training and resources designed to assist barristers with managing their personal finances; making of representations to HMCTS regarding the significant issues relating to Courtserve, the listings process, and other connected procedures.
In October 2023, the Bar Council’s General Management Committee approved the recommendations of the Working Group, which will be implemented with the support of a new Chambers Management Panel over the course of the next two financial years. Whether chambers need greater regulation is a question that the Bar Council will deal with in its forthcoming response to the BSB consultation.
Regardless of our position, one of the things on which we are clear is that the Bar Council can and will improve its support for chambers and demonstrate, through effective thought leadership, the ways in which the profession can adopt the right cultural and behavioural standards through its business practices.