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In a guest blog, Tim Kiely from Red Lion Chambers runs through the highlights from Bar Conference.



In a guest blog for the Bar Council, barrister Tim Kiely shares his thoughts and insights from Bar Conference 2024.

Two years ago I reported from the Bar Council’s annual conference to note that, against the background of unprecedented collective action by the Bar, the profession’s future could not be discussed without also addressing the need for wider, systemic action.

Faith in the justice system was shot, our courtroom estate was (often literally) falling apart, our prisons were full and politicians were demonstrating open contempt for the rule of law. This could not continue.

And then, a few weeks out from this year’s conference, a General Election was called.

It wasn’t really possible to escape the shadow of that particular event and what it might mean, not least when the fact of its being called had prevented the attendance of (among others) Alex Chalk, Shabana Mahmood and Robert Buckland. Though that might have been for the best: the panel that we got, including retired Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill KC (Hon), were united in their advocacy for significant investment in the profession, in prisons and the alternatives to prison. One could not expect much in defence of a government that has presided over a system that is crumbling before our eyes.

And of course, filling the vacuum with artificial intelligence and all its manifold opportunities for miscarriage of justice, or with private prosecution in an environment where other interests (including financial ones) compete with the public good brings its own perils, as the panellists discussing both those issues made clear. And yet, as fraud prosecutor Polly Sprenger pointed out, if someone has the evidence to suggest they are the victim of a pernicious offence but law-enforcement can’t be persuaded or lacks the resources to handle it, where do we expect people to turn?

We are reminded, of course, that those who work within and oversee this system continue to set, and maintain, high standards. In her keynote address the Lady Chief Justice of England and Wales extolled the virtues of the Bar and Judiciary working together wherever they can and reached for the ‘poetry’ of Thomas Erskine’s defence of impartial justice. Let nobody think that the Bar is complacent.

But let nobody forget that the Bar is more conscious than ever of the wider societal and systemic foundations on which the edifice of justice rests. As valuable as breakout workshops are where barristers are encouraged to discuss their earnings and narrow the wider income disparity in the profession (I know I booked a Practice Review Meeting with my clerking team there on the spot!), more work is still needed to ensure the publicly-funded Bar especially pays well enough to attract and retain fresh talent.

Not only that, but the wider world, and the international legal structure which runs through it, are now more in focus than ever. It could not be lost on those attending that a representative for England and Wales on the International Criminal Court, a body which has just issued arrest warrants for leading figures in both Hamas and the Israeli government, could now count among the obstacles to her body’s effective action the representatives of her own government, complaining publicly about how “unhelpful” such actions are to their own projects.

Clearly, the job of making sure that, domestically and internationally, the laws which we make are binding on everybody, no matter their station, is a thankless one. HHJ Korner KC did not hesitate to note that the biggest obstacle to the Court’s effectiveness, in her view, was the unwillingness of state actors (including Rome Treaty signatories) to comply with their obligations to execute arrest warrants.

Respect for the rule of law requires that the tone be set from the top, and accountability come from the bottom – that when our leaders fail us, we take the action needed to produce better ones. It requires, as journalist Chris Stephen noted on the same panel, “courage, which none of us are born with”. But in the best of cases, we can be taught.

Tim Kiely is a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers.