In the Media

Chambers on a knife-edge as Carter review looms

PUBLISHED July 10, 2006

Birmingham barristers fear that the legal aid review will hit work and recruitment, says Paula Rohan

If solicitors in Birmingham are on the edge of their seats over the Carter review of legal aid procurement, their friends at the bar are no different, as most have a crime focus and their survival many depend on the outcome of the review.

?We await Carter?s report with bated breath and uncertainty about what the future holds,? says Bill Maynard, practice manager at Citadel Chambers. ?If it sees solicitors? firms merging, that will have knock-on consequences for chambers.?

Mike Harris, senior clerk at 6 Fountain Court ? which is now set to move to Cornwall Street and change its name accordingly ? agrees. ?In all areas of work, there are difficulties for the provincial bar, particularly with crime,? he says. ?There is a drop in the number of criminal cases coming through and we are also going through tremendous change because of Carter, which could have a profound effect on the bar, although there won?t be as much impact on the family and civil side.?

Citadel is mainly focused on criminal defence work, and Mr Maynard says: ?We are as busy as we could possibly be.? But he has seen chambers that previously took on prosecution work suffer since the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) started making more use of its own in-house advocates. He adds that the police and CPS do not seem to be charging as many people. However, his set has not been affected too much because there is a backlog of cases waiting to go to the Crown Court. ?That will keep our work running for a good number of months,? he says, adding that he also predicts a rise in hearings related to prison law and parole matters.

Meanwhile, No5 Chambers, the nation?s biggest chambers, with 14 QCs and a ?26 million turnover this year, is feeling confident that it might top that figure in 2007. ?We?ve got seven practice areas and have seen significant growth in them,? says practice manager Tony McDaid. ?There is more confidence in the local market-place and we are getting commercial and business work that would have traditionally gone to London.? He puts this down to more aggressive marketing and rising awareness that there are expert barristers outside of London. ?People are also more cost-conscious now,? he adds.

In terms of recruitment, chambers are being hit generally by the fact that they are now obliged to pay pupils ? but many potential barristers do not see the salaries on offer in chambers as enough and are going to more lucrative roles at law firms instead. Six Fountain Court is taking on two pupils this year and two next, but Mr Harris fears many of the best legal brains are opting to become solicitors instead because the pay is better. Mr McDaid thinks criminal law firms had better watch out, as a new trend is seeing Birmingham chambers poaching criminal defence solicitors with four or five years? experience so they do not have to pay for the pupillage.

Mr Maynard is happy about the current recruitment situation: his chambers got 170 applicants for one vacancy. But he is also worried about the future. ?We get a good quality of applicants but my concern is that in two or three years? time people will choose areas other than crime.? They are all hoping that Lord Carter will take note.