The number of practising junior barristers is as low as it has been for a quarter of a century with the younger generation increasingly being forced out of a career at the bar, the Bar Council’s 2018 chair has warned.
In his inaugural address last night, Andrew Walker QC said that, although the population of practising barristers is rising overall, the number of ‘more junior barristers has fallen significantly’. ‘We have now reached the point at which the number up to five years’ call is back to where it was when I was called, 26 years ago,’ he warned.
Walker said the bar should ensure it focuses on recruiting a diverse group of bright practitioners and retaining ‘as many as possible’.
‘I recognise that for some – men and women – the decision to leave the bar to focus on bringing up a family or caring for others is a choice that they make willingly, even happily. But for too many, the choice is still not one that is free from more than just social pressures. And I fear that the current generation of new practitioners, carrying debt and housing cost burdens far beyond those that we bore, will find it harder still.’
Referring to reports of inappropriate behaviour from judges toward counsel, Walker said the bar must make sure that that its culture is ‘open, inclusive and supportive’.
‘I do not believe that this requires us to lose our traditions; but traditions are not static. We must develop them in the right ways so as to achieve this aim.’
He added: ‘We must also ensure that nowhere do we tolerate any form of improper behaviour. Wherever and whenever it happens, you can be assured that we will continue to support anyone who has suffered, and anyone trying to deal with it.’
Walker also warned that the flexible operating hours (FOH) proposal for courts could hit recruitment and retention. ‘We have been forgotten about in court reform: this has led to impractical, unrealistic, and even misguided, ideas being taken forward, such as the FOH proposal. It is inexplicable that no one bothered to ask us about them, and that no one seems to have considered the consequences that were immediately plain to us.’
The Maitland Chambers member also criticised regulator the Bar Standards Board for what he called a failure to understand that barristers are not simply ‘providers of a service’ and for its failures to support the rule of law and encourage a strong and independent profession.
‘If our regulators want to speak to us effectively and persuasively, then they must recognise and appreciate our commitment to our clients and the court,’ he said, adding that this ‘has rarely been mentioned’.
However, he said the BSB’s decision to ditch the quality assurance scheme for advocats (QASA), and hand power to the council to take responsibility for its own learning and development and manage its own professionalism and standards, signified a possible turning point.
‘If we want to avoid what we see as unnecessary regulatory burdens, we must play our part in making them unnecessary. If we want to avoid the sort of thing that is exemplified by accreditation schemes, some sort of offspring of QASA, or a multiplicity of kite marks, then we must avoid the need for them,’ he said.
Walker takes over from Andrew Langdon QC as chair of the Bar on 1 January.