Barristers expect the volume of public access work they take on to grow in the next few years, according to a report by the Bar Standards Board.
But the report, which was also commissioned by the Legal Services Board, shows that many barristers are wary that such growth could create tensions with solicitors. Some voiced fears that marketing direct access more widely could create more direct competition for clients.
One interviewee said a barrister had noticed that some solicitors stopped instructing her after she advertised her public access work.
The survey of 404 public access barristers shows that while public access represents a relatively small proportion of barristers' caseload, this work has ‘markedly increased’ over the past three years.
Of those surveyed, 54% said they had undertaken just one to five public access cases in the past year and only 2% say they had undertaken 50 cases or more.
However the figure rises for barristers who have been authorised to take public access work for six years or more. In this category nearly 10% said it accounts for more than three-quarters of their work.
The ‘overwhelming consensus’ is that the volume of public access work is expected to increase in the next few years, with the client base widening as the public and businesses become more aware of the scheme. This is likely to force chambers away from the traditional operating model to operating more like a solicitors' firm.
Family law and chancery are the main areas in which barristers have undertaken a high proportion of public access work.
Of the 135 respondents working in family law, nearly all (96%) said they had taken on public access work in the last year, with 40% reporting that this contributes to more than three-quarters of their work. Of the 109 chancery barristers, 84% took on public access work in the past year.
Cuts to legal aid were shown as the main reason for the growth of public access work in family law. According to the report, people who must now self-fund cases are instructing barristers directly as a more cost-effective option than first instructing a solicitor.
Barristers cited further cuts or restrictions to legal aid as potential drivers of more public access work.
The advent of online portals advertising public access work, and repeat clients from corporate businesses, are also expected to increase direct access work.
But despite the potential for growth, the report also reveals the risks barristers face in taking on this work.
Respondents noted an increased risk of complaints and of disciplinary proceedings in the event of non-compliance.
They also said there is a lack of understanding of what a barrister should and should not do by clients, and some expressed concern about the overlap and ‘blurring of the edges’ between the barrister and solicitor roles.
Steve Brooker, head of research and development at the LSB said: 'This joint research is an important stocktake of where the public access scheme currently stands. While representing a relatively small proportion of a barristers’ caseload it is, nonetheless, growing.
'Benefits for consumers that are starting to emerge from this key market liberalisation measure - wider choice, improved timeliness of access to services and lower costs - are important and can be expected to grow as public access work grows.’
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘Solicitors provide vital support to clients for all legal issues, including those that have become contentious. While clients can instruct barristers directly and have been able to do for some time, solicitors provide a wider range of services, which is why many clients choose to instruct a solicitor first.
He added: ‘Solicitors are particularly effective at advising parties on how to resolve disputes outside court, but if a contested hearing is the only option a client will often want the continuity of relationship that a solicitor can provide.’