Friday 20 July 2012 by Catherine Baksi
The chair of the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has defended the process for disciplining barristers following a claim that it is in a 'state of collapse' amid allegations of secrecy, maladministration and incompetence.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Lady Deech said: 'It is totally untrue that the system is in collapse or is deeply flawed. When a complaint is made against a barrister we will investigate it fairly and transparently and make sure that the public is protected.'
Deech was responding to concerns that have come to light suggesting that 679 disciplinary cases involving barristers, dating back nearly a decade, could be unsafe and open to challenge.
Information provided to the BSB by the Council of the Inns of Court (COIC), the body that administers disciplinary tribunals, suggests that 515 of the cases concern those where tribunal members' appointments had not been properly renewed; 47 involved potential conflicts of interest where panel members were also on BSB or Bar Council committees, and 117 where other provisions relating to appointments may not have been followed.
Deech said that a High Court judge last week ruled that technical irregularities regarding the appointment of tribunal members had nevertheless resulted in valid decisions.
The ruling was made by Mr Justice Singh, who sat as part of a panel of the Visitors of the Inns of Court, which hears appeals against disciplinary tribunal rulings.
Singh ruled that the tribunal was properly constituted, despite the fact that one of the lay members was no longer on the list of barrister volunteers. He said that the rules did not require the member to be the list, but that even if they were wrong, the member had de facto authority to sit on the tribunal.
A BSB spokeswoman said that this decision would cover disciplinary decisions in 515 cases, which could therefore be treated as legitimate.
Brigadier Anthony Faith, the under treasurer at Gray's Inn, which is currently administering COIC, told the Gazette that the 'technical irregularities' were discovered after a review of the system was set last autumn.
The review, led by former Bar Council Desmond Browne QC, is expected to be published next week.
Faith said: 'We've spent the last few months identifying the issues and sorting them out, and we are about to contact all the affected barristers in those cases that are closed. Looking to the future we are setting up a fit for purpose new tribunal service, with a registrar; the full details of which will be set out in the report.'
Other complaints made by barristers allege conflicts of interests among tribunal members, secrecy, maladministration and incompetence.
Barrister Marc Beaumont who represents barristers appearing before the tribunal told the Today programme earlier this week that the system's two main defects were a lack of transparency and a lack of fairness.
He said: 'If I were to say that the system is in a state of collapse I do not think that that is an exaggeration.'
Beaumont said: 'It is a matter of gross embarrassment for most barristers that their system, which should be a gold standard… in terms of procedural propriety and regularity is in such a shambolic state.'
Barrister Jonathan Rich told the programme his practice had been effectively destroyed by BSB investigations over the past decade. He said the sponsor barrister, charged with investigating the complaints against him, had worked on cases for the RSPCA, which was one of the parties who had complained about him. He described the situation as 'the most preposterous conflict of interest.'
Rich told the programme: 'I think there is essentially a level of lazy incompetence at the back of it all. I have to say that what is underneath the veneer at the BSB is a very unattractive type of wood that is very rotten and powdery.'
Deech told the programme today that she could not address particular cases, but said: 'It doesn't surprise me that sometimes barristers, who are themselves under investigation don't like it, but I think that shows we're doing a good job.'
BSB figures show that in 2011, there were 15,581 practising barristers and 529 (3%) were subject to complaints. Of those, 141 (less than 1%) were subject to disciplinary proceedings.