In the Media

Judges to pass sentence on barristers

PUBLISHED November 29, 2006

Judges are to be invited to assess the performance of barristers as part of plans to help the public to identify good-quality advocates who offer value for money. Weak barristers would be sent for extra training or given help with personal issues that may be hindering their work.

At the same time, a ?good barrister guide? is being considered in which barristers below the rank of Queen?s Counsel would be ranked by experience and ability. 
The plans are part of a strategy to maintain excellence to be announced this week by the Bar Standards Board. The board is the new independent body charged with maintaining discipline and standards in the 13,000-strong barristers? profession in England and Wales. Ruth Evans, its chairman, who is a former director of the National Consumer Council, said: ?It?s not hard to know who are the brilliant advocates or one who is failing. But there is a huge grey area in-between and we want to ensure that the consumer can get quality of service and value for money.?

Mark Stobbs, director of the board, said: ?The consumer simply wants to know ? how good is any barrister??

At present, Ms Evans said, judges were reluctant to report underperforming advocates to the Bar Council because that was seen as a disciplinary route. Fewer than a dozen referrals are made a year.

Under the plans, barristers could be referred by colleagues as well as by judges and could refer themselves, Ms Evans added. ?We want this to be seen as providing a channel to help and support barristers, not a disciplinary matter, which could in some cases pre-empt complaints.

?But if a barrister has had three or more ?hits? or referrals, for instance, then that could be a case for automatic referral to the disciplinary process.?

The plans were at an early stage and had not yet been fully developed, she added.

At the same time, the board wants to look at the grading of barristers to ensure consistent standards, a measure being piloted in the field of criminal work by the Legal Services Commission. The idea is to ensure that only barristers who have qualified at a certain level of expertise are given legal aid work. Four grades up to the level of QC are being considered.

?I don?t see why non-publicly funded work should not have the same rigour, demonstrating value for money,? Ms Evans said.

One option is a peer-review process every three years.

?Users of barristers rely on referrals by solicitors and there is no independent verification of quality by the regulator. There has to be that information in an independent, accessible form.?

Ms Evans, who is a lay member of the General Medical Council and former chairman of its standards and ethics committee, took up her post at the new body in January.

The board denotes a split between the regulatory functions of the profession and the representative or trades-union role carried out by the Bar Council.

Setting the Bar
  • Bar Standards Board was set up after Sir David Clementi?s report said that regulation should be divided from representation
  • Ruth Evans chairs a committee of eight barristers and seven lay people
  • Board currently oversees the system of handling complaints made against barristers
  • It is in negotiation to retain input into a new complaints system under the Legal Services Bill, which will set up a single Office for Legal Complaints concerning all lawyers