Bar urged to stop worrying about upsetting solicitors and embrace public access.
Any solicitors who fear increased competition from public access barristers would not have been comforted by a seminar last week on new opportunities at the bar.
The Inner Temple event, which looked at how the bar should respond in the light of cuts to legal aid, had one main answer: more barristers should embrace public access work.
‘Those who come to the bar come to it to help people. But equally they have families and have to earn a living,’ Kevin Leigh, a barrister on the Bar Council’s access to the bar committee, told attendees. ‘Public access is an opportunity to increase your practice, help people and get paid at the same time,’ he said.
A new payment plan offered by Legal Cost Finance, which has recently partnered with the Bar Council, was also touted as an opportunity to help those who can no longer rely on state funding.
Public access and the money clients save from instructing a barrister directly was proposed as a way of offsetting any interest on the product.
Although half of all barristers were by this year expected to able to receive direct instructions from clients, many have chosen to hold off qualifying for direct access work over fears that solicitors would view them as competition.
But practitioners were encouraged to stop worrying about upsetting solicitors and embrace this work.
‘Don’t think: "let’s play nicely with solicitors",’ Leigh said. ‘Solicitors are also looking at how to keep work within their practice.’
Some speakers, however, suggested that solicitors were now no longer so opposed to the idea of barristers engaging clients directly.
Andrew Dines, public access course facilitator for the Bar Council, said that solicitors were ‘starting to understand’ where direct access fits within the legal profession.
But he urged the bar to decide what direction it wants to move in with public access.
‘Let’s have a clear conversation with solicitors and establish the ground rules and a way of working together,’ Dines said.
‘We need a clear idea about what we want to do with public access. Will it be mainstream or not? If we are going to go for it then maybe we need to think more clearly about what our plan is.’
Solicitors and barristers are still adapting to how they should deal with their evolving roles as the distinctions between the two professions continue to blur. But with cuts to legal aid making life tougher, solicitors should be prepared for barristers increasingly looking to take up public access work.
Chloe Smith is a Gazette reporter