‘Outmoded’ working practices pose a risk to the bar and limit the ability of barristers to meet consumer needs, the new chair of the Bar Standards Board warned last night.

In one of his first keynote speeches since taking the position, Sir Andrew Burns (pictured) also pointed to the additional challenges of boosting diversity and growing financial pressures. 

In a speech at Lincoln’s Inn, he said: ‘As society is more culturally diverse we see evidence that not all our consumers feel that they are able to talk to legal advisers who are adequately empathetic to the problems they face and the cultural backgrounds they come from.’

For this reason, he said the bar could do more to ‘modernise’, enabling barristers to gain the trust of their clients.

He said that the BSB is focusing on cultivating more ‘agile and adaptable’ advocates, by permitting new ways of working and opening up the market to innovative ways of providing legal services.

As examples, Burns pointed to how the BSB is moving to regulate alternative business structures and updating the way it is regulating public access barristers. 

He said that while commercial and private law may be partially sheltered from the challenges faced by the publicly funded bar, the present model for the administration of justice in the criminal, family and immigration court is increasingly under strain. 

‘The government says it cannot afford the cost of legal aid and court administration, individuals clearly cannot afford the cost of litigation and representation,’ he said.

‘This gives rise to an increase in litigants in person, and barristers find themselves squeezed out of the market by a declining caseload and growing competition both from other regulated legal professionals and from unregulated service providers.

‘As financial pressures bite on government, the chances grow that new legislation may be introduced which could radically affect the existing regulatory arrangements.’

Burns said that how the bar fares in the face of these manifold challenges ‘will frankly depend on the robustness and creativity of its response, the changes which government and the judiciary will bring into the administration of justice, the speed with which consumers seek out alternative models and the success of the regulator, I suggest, in holding the ring’.