Whether you joined the Bar Council’s Annual Conference on Saturday in the Grand Connaught Rooms or online this year, recent events loomed very large indeed. In a year that has seen unprecedented action by the criminal bar and against a backdrop of increasing political instability, the idea that our profession could begin a process of effective ‘Future Proofing’ inevitably involved some serious questions about both individual practice and wider systemic action.
From the very first extended session on access to justice and ‘fixing our broken justice system’, panellist after panellist from the criminal and civil streams spoke passionately about the ways in which drying pools of legal advice were leading to ‘legal deserts’ around the country, and the suffering they caused for ordinary people.
Meanwhile on Saturday, as Baroness Kennedy KC moderated a panel on ‘Threats to the Rule of Law’, practitioners at the Bar in England and Wales were presented with representatives from the Irish, Polish and even Ukrainian Bars (appearing by livestream) who illustrated plainly what was at stake, with authoritarian political movements advancing around the world, and in one case actually fighting right now to capture a sovereign democracy by violence.
Many speakers were not shy about pointing out where those in charge were neglecting their responsibilities to the sector. I can’t have been the only one who got a particular charge from hearing Sam Townend KC, in the first panel, call our political leaders to task for what he called their “sneering… contemptuous disregard” for the legal profession.
As for what might be done to raise the public’s consciousness of the legal system and legal aid as a public good, an expansive programme of civic education was mentioned repeatedly, as was the need to keep pressing home the overwhelming strength of our case. As practitioners like Amean Elgadhy pointed out, the evidence was incontestable that the provision of early, high-quality advice would make all the difference to the progress of cases through an overstretched system, but the work of advising our government (and opposition) was an ongoing, frequently Sisyphean task.
Set against this background, some of the more practical panels on ‘Predicting industry trends’, or ‘Cybersecurity and the Justice System’ with Eleanor Fairfield of the National Cybersecurity Council (NCSC) presented a strange contrast at times. The quality of the content in all cases was high, and the information extremely useful (if occasionally terrifying, so far as the dangers of ransomware attacks are concerned) but perhaps this sense of fragmentation was inevitable given the demands of the various panels. After all, being a ‘team player’ (as advised by Marcia Shekerdemian KC during the ‘trends’ panel) will not patch the holes in a crumbling justice system.
When, in response to one question from the floor about what junior barristers want from their chambers, one ‘trends’ panellist answered “good management and a good brand”, and another “first-class clerking and access to work at the most cost-effective rate”. I couldn’t help but feel that one big demand, hovering unspoken over proceedings, was for a functioning legal and political system and a government with the will to implement it. In that light, Professor Conor Geraghty KC’s suggestion that the single most effective solution would be to agitate for proportional representation looked less ‘radical’, to me at least, than it did the minimum necessary.
Of course, this kind of more commercially-minded advice is expected at Bar Conference events, and when Joe Wilson claims that chambers are finding themselves driven towards a more outward-facing, engaged approach where their clients can see them participate in difficult advocacy or run a range of talks and programmes, I can speak (or write) from personal experience when I say he isn’t wrong.
But it also could not be ignored that larger political realities must be negotiated with as we aim to build up and safeguard our profession. Of this, the Bar of 2022 is more aware than ever.
Tim Kiely, Criminal Barrister, Red Lion Chambers