‘Baby barrister’ threat to solicitors
Barristers with under three years’ practising experience will be able to take instructions directly from clients if the Bar Standards Board’s latest plan for the extension of public access rules is approved.
The board heard last week that ‘baby barristers’ may be the only representation some clients can afford.
Proposals finalised last week would allow more lay clients to use barristers without going through a solicitor by removing bans on barristers accepting work where the client may be eligible for legal aid, and on allowing barristers with less than three years’ practising experience from accepting public access instructions.
The Law Society has previously opposed removing the current three-year limit. Responding to a consultation in March, the Society said: ‘Dealing directly with clients requires a level of maturity and expertise which the majority of entrants to the profession cannot be expected to possess.’
At last week’s BSB meeting, Patricia Robertson QC, chair of the board’s standards committee, said the current rules had been introduced in 2004 with ‘a degree of nervousness’ as they were so novel, and that some aspects now appear to be ‘overcautious’. She said the scheme needs to be viewed in the wider context given the imminent legal aid cuts and expected rise in the number of litigants in person.
Robertson cited a Civil Justice Council report from November 2011 which suggested that ‘expanded public access’ could be part of the solution to the problem of litigants in person.
The BSB’s proposal acknowledges that relaxing the prohibitions carries the risk that clients might instruct a public access barrister when it could be in their best interests to apply for legal aid, and that newly qualified barristers will undertake work they lack the experience to handle. But the paper claims the current rules ‘restrict choice’ and adversely affect access to justice.
Robertson said all barristers have a duty not to take on cases beyond their competence. She said: ‘"Baby barristers" are very competent and may be the only representation that people can afford. They know an awful lot more about the law and procedure than their clients.’
The BSB will submit its proposals to the Legal Services Board next month. The BSB’s meeting also heard calls for the ‘naming and shaming’ of solicitors who request referral fees for work. The payment of such fees is prohibited by the bar’s code of conduct.