Legal Aid

Carter leaves bitter taste in the regions

PUBLISHED September 15, 2006

Barristers are worried about the amount of criminal work, says Catherine Baksi

The bar on the North Eastern Circuit in geographical terms comprises Yorkshire, County Durham and Northumbria. It is bordered by Derbyshire to the south, the Pennines in the west, the Scottish border and the North Sea. The circuit has almost 700 members, with around 60 QCs, practising from nearly 30 sets of chambers, the largest number of whom are in Leeds.

Simon Bourne-Arton QC, the leader of the North Eastern Circuit, says that civil law is generally quite strong in the region, and the family bar is expanding, with more specialists coming into the area. But he acknowledges that the region needs to recruit and attract more chancery and commercial lawyers. ?We have specialist mercantile and chancery courts, and there?s a lot of work to do, but at the moment much of it is being done by barristers from Manchester and London.?

In common with the rest of the country, he says the criminal bar is under considerable threat. ?Although the Carter proposals have been tentatively accepted, there is concern about the future. Couple that with the fact that the amount of criminal work coming before the courts in the region has declined, and the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service is doing more of its own higher court advocacy in-house, it is a worrying time for practitioners, particularly the juniors.?

These three threats are forcing criminal practitioners to look at alternative practices, says Mr Bourne-Arton. Jeremy Barnett, at traditionally criminal set St Paul?s Chambers in Leeds, is doing just that. Responding to the changing environment, the chambers set up a specialist regulatory breach group and has also increased its focus on alternative dispute resolution.

Mr Barnett is pragmatic: ?The bar has to provide a service to its clients. We can?t just be complacent and say ?this is what we?ve always done?. Without focusing on our clients? needs, there will be no future for the bar. Sitting back and complaining is not going to get any of us anywhere.?

Mr Bourne-Arton?s commentary is echoed across the region, with sets reporting that family work remains strong, but for many chambers it is not viable for them to take on criminal law pupils, as the work is simply not around for them to do.

The majority of work done on circuit is received from local solicitors, although there are instructions from London, particularly for the silks. Sets report a greater solidarity among the bar and with the solicitors? branch of the profession due to the uncertainty over the way the Carter proposals will play out.

John Godfrey, head of Wilberforce Chambers in Hull, says: ?The provincial bar is strapped. It?s hard work, but at least we don?t have all the bureaucracy that the solicitors have to do as well.?

It appears that even in paradise there is trouble. Gary Burrell QC, head of Sheffield?s Paradise Chambers, says times are changing for the civil as well as the criminal bar, and while there remains a lot of civil work around, the larger solicitors? firms in the area are doing more of their own work. In addition, many more cases settle and so the job is becoming more advisory, with less advocacy.

He concludes: ?There is significant change afoot for the profession and people are not feeling as secure as they once were.?