In the Media

Fostering community relations

PUBLISHED November 17, 2006

Independent advocates will be crucial in a post-Carter world, while barristers must enhance their community relations, says Stephen Hockman

One of the bar?s greatest strengths is that its traditions are rooted in history. However, society no longer respects tradition for its own sake. Any profession must continually demonstrate its value in the public interest, and must be prepared to accept scrutiny on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

Under the Legal Services Bill, which is likely to feature prominently in this week?s Queen?s Speech, a new legal services board will be created. It will be independent of government and will supervise the regulation of the legal profession as a whole. Nonetheless, if, as we shall insist, the government fulfils its commitment to the continuing independence of the profession, the Bar Council?s future as an approved regulator of barristers (through the Bar Standards Board) will be secure.

We will monitor closely the progress of the Bill through Parliament. We shall be seeking to ensure that in its final form it reflects the recommendations of the authoritative all-party joint parliamentary committee that reported during the summer.

We will then have to revisit once again the nature and scope of our own regulatory regime. It will be essential to avoid preconceptions. The criterion in such a review should be whether a proposed approach is consistent with the preservation of a corps of specialist advocates and advisers, guided by the principles that I have set out.

Our own profession in this country is unusual in the degree of support that it receives from public funds. The Carter review of legal aid, despite the many difficulties it faced, and despite the apparent complexity of its outcome, has enabled a comprehensive and rigorous view to be taken of the system of public procurement going forward.

We recognise that there are issues to be resolved in the implementation of its proposals. In the long term, the challenge will be to ensure that (particularly so far as the Crown Court is concerned) the crucial role of independent advocates continues to be recognised in any procurement structure. The availability of a body of advocates who can act both for the prosecution and for the defence is a crucial element in our system of criminal justice. It is one of the key reasons why that system continues to be respected internationally, especially in those jurisdictions in Europe and elsewhere where this tradition is lacking.

Perhaps the most important challenge for the profession in the years to come will be, not merely to adapt to these important changes, but to show publicly that it has done so. I said at the beginning of the year that the bar collectively needed to carve out a new relationship with the community that it serves, so that its reputation within that community could be preserved and enhanced.

It is important for the bar to continue to speak out in support of minorities on human rights issues and so forth. But it is equally crucial for the bar collectively to show its support for issues that are of concern to the majority, such as security, crime and disorder.

The fact that probably up to one-third of the profession is engaged in publicly funded work shows in itself the commitment of the bar to the interests of the community. We need to ensure that this contribution is recognised, and indeed that the community?s own contribution, in terms of public resources, to the legal system is enhanced. This continues to be the most significant political issue affecting the profession today.

Stephen Hockman QC is the chairman of the General Council of the Bar of England and Wales