Barristers have clashed over what terminology should be used in guidance for youth court advocacy, with a member of the regulator’s board stating that the profession is ‘not there to empathise’ with criminals.

Yesterday the Bar Standards Board discussed its ‘Youth Proceedings Competencies and Guidance’ – guidelines for ‘key competencies’ that all barristers operating in youth courts must meet.

Part of the document encourages barristers to ‘empathise, understand and communicate effectively’ with those who may not share their own style of spoken language or background. It also recommends that they should have the ability to ‘empathise and build trust with young people’.

But board members clashed over the wording of the guidelines.

Judith Farbey QC, board member and a member of Doughty Street Chambers, said she felt ‘very strongly’ over the words 'empathy' and 'understand'.

‘Empathy and understanding are not part of being a barrister,’ she said. ‘I would have great trouble feeling empathy for someone who had daubed a swastika over a building but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do my best to do my job of representing them. Empathy and understanding do not come into it. It’s not our job to be empathetic.’

She added that she also felt uncomfortable with references to race, gender and religious background.

Oliver Hanmer, the BSB’s director of regulatory assurance, said members could suggest alternative wordings before publishing the guidance – including dropping the words ‘empathy' and 'understand’ so that the guidance would only state that barristers should ‘communicate effectively’.

The guidance was recommended following a review of the youth justice system in December last year which suggested improvements to the system including making youth court advocacy a specialism.

It also encourages barristers to speak in ‘plain English’ and recognise that young people might find it ‘difficult to engage with them’.

The board meeting also heard that very junior barristers are often given youth courts cases. 

The final guidelines are set to be published later today.