Legal regulation is ‘too cumbersome and too expensive’, the bar’s chairman has said, rejecting the Legal Services Board’s role as the ‘superior regulator’.

Maura McGowan QC (pictured) told the bar’s annual conference at the weekend barristers are ‘watched over like naughty children’ despite the quality of training they receive at the start and during their careers.

Regulation, she said is ‘too cumbersome, too expensive and it does not serve the public in guaranteeing excellence. As we see from the proposed Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates, it only sets out to ensure competence.’

McGowan said: ‘The advent of the Legal Services Board has not driven up standards, it has put more obstacles in the way of those trying to practise well and honestly. 

‘We should not be held to account by an oversight regulator whose stated position is “to look forward to a future when the provision of legal services means more service and less legal”,’ she said.

McGowan said the bar ‘enthusiastically’ welcomes the call for evidence and the government’s proposals to look at the way in which lawyers are regulated.

Speaking at a press conference, she accepted that the profession could not go back to self regulation, which she said is ‘not attractive to the public’. The bar’s vice chair Nicholas Lavender QC voiced concern at the growth of a new ‘profession of regulator’, but suggested that legal regulation is ‘clearly difficult to get right’.

He told the press that since 1990 there has been three acts on legal regulation – the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990; Access to Justice Act 1999 and the Legal Services Act 2007. ‘Six years later we have had the lord chancellor saying it is still not right,’ said Lavender.

Stressing the high standards of ‘probity and integrity’ at the bar, McGowan said the legal profession had helped repair the reputational damage done by financial institutions to the City and to the UK as a place to do business.

‘And we have done all this at the time when banks fail and bankers are prosecuted, when MPs are imprisoned for fiddling their expenses and when some sections of the press are literally in the dock for alleged hacking.’ 

She added: ‘The underpinning of the rule of law by the work and standards of the bar is what enables politicians to go abroad to sell and promote UK plc.’

McGowan said politicians cannot pretend that legal aid cuts will not detrimentally affect the public good. ‘In commercially funded areas of practice, talent is met by financial reward and the acclaim of the lord chancellor. In publicly funded areas it is met with contemptuous disregard.

‘It cannot be justifiable to deny parents represented access to the courts to fight for the custody of their children on the grounds of financial expediency. It cannot be right to drive barristers of quality out of the provision of defence advocacy to those charged by the state with criminal offences. To deny those who would seek to challenge the administrative actions of the state adequate or any funding to seek review is unfair and unprincipled,’ she said.

If the lord chancellor Chris Grayling wants to maintain an independent referral bar, McGowan stressed he must be prepared to spend ‘reasonable and sensible amounts of money to make it function,’ she said.

McGowan said the government has listened to the profession over some of its planned changes. The reinstatement of client choice, was she said a ‘big step’, but she added the profession needs to go on pressing the arguments for further changes.

On the prospect of strike action if the government does not row back from some of the cuts, she told the press: ‘We will have to see.’ She predicted: ‘I suspect a lot of people will refuse to accept instructions.’

McGowan said the bar will continue to co-operate and work with the Law Society to bring about further change.

She accepted there are tensions between the two professions over the increasing work of solicitor advocates and the bar’s increasing steps into public access, but said: ‘There is far more that keeps us together than splits us.’