Solicitors’ representatives and sector analysts have played down the likely impact of the bar’s latest move to attract clients directly.
They were commenting after the Financial Services Authority approved a scheme allowing barristers to sidestep the current prohibition on holding client money, a major barrier to direct-access services.
The financial regulator gave the green light to Barco, a company owned and operated by the Bar Council, which provides an escrow service to enable barristers to receive funds from clients.
Several large sets, including London’s Atkin Building, St Johns Buildings in Manchester and St Philips in Birmingham, have signed up to test Barco before it becomes available to the whole profession. Under the scheme, funds will be held in a ‘ring-fenced’ Barclays account. Barristers will pay an administration fee of 2% of their fee, capped at £250 per withdrawal. All interest earned will be returned to clients, the Bar Council said.
Barco’s chair, the immediate past chairman of the bar Michael Todd QC, said the scheme ‘will offer an imaginative and unique solution for clients all over the world, making it easier than ever before to work with the bar, while maintaining the bar’s high-quality and cost-effective services.’
A Law Society spokeswoman said the initiative may provide ‘some additional choice for some clients’, but that barristers do not have the capacity to provide the level of support needed by most users of legal services. ‘We expect that most clients will continue to find the continuous support provided by solicitors to be most appropriate for their needs,’ she said.
Industry consultants also played down the potential threat. Ian Dodd, from the Bar Consultancy Network, said: ‘It’s a good idea, but it’s a work in progress. Until it’s a little more mature solicitors have little to fear.’
Tony Williams, principal at Jomati Consultants, said: ‘It’s not much of a short-term threat, but a sign that the lines will get more blurred over the next few years.’ Success will depend on the extent to which chambers take up direct access work, he said.
‘Many still see law firms as a useful filter and aren’t seeing direct access as a great opportunity at the moment.’
Thomas Blackburn, national advocacy manager at Just Costs Solicitors, said the scheme could lead to barristers being approached for strategic advice before solicitors are instructed.
‘I could see positive outcomes from barristers directly influencing cases from the outset, rather than being brought in, as is common practice, after strategy and key decisions have already been made,’ he said.