Monday 30 July 2012 by Catherine Baksi
A damning report on the barristers' disciplinary regime recommends creating a new tribunals service after uncovering 'systemic failures' in the current system.
The report by the Council of Inns of Court (COIC) disciplinary tribunals and review group makes 82 recommendations for change after finding 'systemic failures' in the administration of the tribunal system for disciplining barristers.
It says the failings, which included issues about the eligibility of tribunal members and potential conflicts of interest where panel members were also on Bar Standards Board or Bar Council committees, 'went back some years'.
The review, led by former bar chair Desmond Browne QC, was set up in November 2011 to carry out a 'health check' on the of the arrangements and ensure there was a proper degree of independence from the BSB, as prosecutor.
In a foreword to the report, Browne said: 'The need for reform was so great that we very quickly changed from a review group into what was effectively an implementation group so as to ensure that the disciplinary tribunals system could continue to operate.'
He said the task was 'colossal' due to the 'serious inadequacy of the existing record-keeping'. Other underlying weaknesses included an absence of arrangements for accountability, rules being overlooked, and an absence of written procedures for administration.
The review found that the tribunal was administered by a single secretary, who was neither supported nor supervised, from a 'small one-room office in a set of chambers'.
Among the recommendations is the establishment of a new service, the COIC Tribunals Service, covering both COIC disciplinary tribunals and the Inns Conduct Committee.
It says the new service should draw up a set of publicly available principles under which it should operate, and produce written information for service users, with the names of tribunal and ICC members published online.
It recommends developing documentation and policies 'typical of a modern adjudicatory body' including risk policy, equality policy, freedom of information, disclosure policy and information retention and disposal policy as well as the use of an electronic case management system.
The tribunals service should provide an annual report to COIC, performance data, the review says.
But it says the question of online publication of all publishable findings and sentences imposed by the tribunals, and details of forthcoming hearings on the tribunals service, should be further considered, in consultation with the BSB.
A statement from COIC said that in anticipation of the report, it had in March reconstituted the tribunals appointments body under new terms of reference and with a new chair, Lord Justice McFarlane.
It said: 'For the future COIC is determined that with efficient administration and proper resources, including new dedicated accommodation, it will provide the service which the public interest demands and the bar deserves.'
Brigadier Anthony Faith, the under treasurer at Gray's Inn, which is currently administering COIC, told the Gazette that the body is in the process of appointing a change manager, who will be in place by the end of October.
Faith said interviews have been carried out over the last two weeks for new lay and barrister members of the disciplinary panels and that new, refurbished, accommodation from where to administer the body is being made available in Gray's Inn and will be ready by the end of the year.
Welcoming the report, BSB Chair Lady Deech said: 'The publication of the COIC tribunal review report is a vital step in assuring the public and the profession that the disciplinary arrangements for the bar of England and Wales are open and transparent.'
She said: 'The BSB will continue to work with COIC as it implements the recommendations contained in the report. The improvements brought about by full implementation of the recommendations will cement the creation of an independent and modern hearings service, operating fairly, transparently and efficiently in the public interest.'