Law: One man who is propping up the Bar

The new chairman of the Bar Council is a tough-talking humanist with traditional legal values

Dan Brennan QC marches briskly to the bar of a hotel in St James's Park, and demands a pint. He has spent the afternoon at meetings in Parliament, where he is due back later. He has broken off, briefly, only to discuss his plans for next year and to reveal - between sips of beer - how he intends to lead barristers through a period of momentous change.

Unlike some previous Bar chairmen, Brennan, 56, will not waste months thinking about what he is going to do. He already has a timetable, starting early next year with the committee stage of the Access to Justice Bill. "I have really prepared myself," he explains, "because this Government is intent on the most radical change in the legal system for 50 years."

When Brennan was elected as vice-chairman, after just two years on the Bar Council, this was interpreted as a snub to his opponent, Jonathan Hirst QC, who had served for 10 years. But what the Bar needs now, it was decreed, is a leader far removed from the stereotype of the out-of- touch, upper-class silk. Hirst - as an Old Etonian, and son of a previous Bar Council chairman, did not fit the bill.

Thus, Heather Hallett QC, the first woman to chair the Bar Council, is succeeded next month by Brennan, who, like Hallett, went to grammar school, and grew up in Bradford (where his father ran a pub). His career at the Bar, representing victims of personal injury and medical negligence, has earned him a reputation that is practically unsurpassed. Brennan's main cases include acting for the timpanist in a Hong Kong orchestra last year, in a claim relating to organo-phosphates, and he also helped to secure damages of pounds 3.9m last month for a 17-year-old girl who requires 24-hour care since being deprived of oxygen at birth.

He has also been instructed to act in cases relating to disasters, such as the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Marchioness, and the Manchester air crash. The most challenging, he says, was "the one in which patients with haemophilia were given the HIV virus in plasma. Young people died through no fault of their own".

But, he says, this is not a depressing area of law in which to practise. "I am not a social worker; I'm a barrister. I must be objective. I try to reassure people that they are not to be anxious. I am there to do a professional job."

Until the Bar Council began to claim too much of his time, Brennan was closely involved with the tobacco litigation currently going through the courts - which is the first multi-party action undertaken on the basis of no win, no fee. This showed genuine commitment, since the solicitors and barristers involved in the case could face losses of pounds 3m between them if the action fails.

The solicitor leading the case, Martyn Day, knows Brennan well: "You just have to see him with a client. With some silks, the last time they were human was when they were kids. But he is really human, and when he presents a case, you're thinking to yourself: `Sock it to the bastards!'." Vigorous in court, especially in cross-examination, Brennan says he wanted to be an advocate since he was "a young lad". And he is eager to ensure that people from similar backgrounds can continue to become barristers.

"It would be a tragedy if we went back to the middle-class Bar of the past, but the cost of qualifying puts unreasonable pressure on people from average backgrounds. That isn't right."

He joined the Bar Council when the Major government started raising the issue of conditional fee arrangements (whereby lawyers get paid only if they win). "That affected personal injury work, and I became a spokesman on the subject."

Even with a new government in power, there are few areas where Brennan agrees with the Lord Chancellor (beyond a shared dislike of wigs). He considers Lord Irvine's suggestion that barristers are fat cats as "totally unjustified", and if you ask him whether this barrister-crammed Government is relatively friendly to the Bar, he splutters into his beer and asks: "Who have you been drinking with, my boy?"

But Geoff Hoon MP, the minister of state at the Lord Chancellor's department, who is also a barrister, has insisted that the Government's approach is not to ask, "will this harm the Bar?", so much as, "will this help more people?"

Brennan says he welcomes the extension of advocacy rights to solicitors, which is proposed under the forthcoming Access to Justice Bill, but only if they are competent. "Otherwise, the public will get poor representation, and the courts will be log-jammed because of the incompetence, and the legal system will fall into disrepute."

To stem the loss of work to solicitor advocates, Brennan wants chambers to introduce "kite-marks" guaranteeing efficiency and good service. This would enable them to contract directly for cases with the body which will replace the Legal Aid Board, rather than rely on solicitors to farm out the work. He is also likely to reconsider the issue of direct access to the Bar, cutting out the solicitor's traditional role of intermediary, in cases involving companies and other professions.

Earlier this year, Brennan led the Bar Council's opposition to Lord Irvine's suggestion that legal aid should be granted only in cases assessed as having a 75 per cent chance of success. In making his case, Brennan introduced one of his own clients, Sally Murphy, who was awarded more than pounds 2m because her daughter, deprived of oxygen at birth, suffers from cerebral palsy. Her legally aided case, explained Brennan, would never have passed the 75 per cent threshold, and, with both Murphy and her partner unemployed, the case could not otherwise have come to court.

Earlier this year he also demonstrated an internationalist outlook - his wife is Spanish - by urging lawyers across Europe to lobby for damages to be harmonised across the European Union. At present, losing an eye is worth about pounds 5,000 in Portugal, but pounds 20,000 in Britain.

To make the Bar more relevant to the community, he hopes to expand pro bono work, and develop the civic education programmes with schools to deal with human rights. A book on this subject, which was put together by the English Bar, was launched in several languages by the United Nations last week.

He is conscious that the Bar should not merely oppose change. On the question of legal aid, the Bar put forward its own proposals, such as taking action against lawyers who persistently offer over-optimistic advice, and continuous assessment for legally aided cases. To support their case, Brennan brought in specialists to evaluate the potential impact of conditional fee arrangements on the Bar; some fear that the best barristers, finding themselves in great demand, will take on only the cases they know that they can win. And he also invited actuaries to examine the ultimate cost to consumers. Legal fees, they reported, could amount to more than a quarter of a client's damages award in these cases.

Overall, he says, putting his beer to one side, the Bar's response to change has to be seen to be reasoned, well organised, and in the public interest. If the Bar has to change its professional structure, it will - but not at the cost of its independence and integrity. "This country has traditionally relied on a strong, independent Bar. You can have an advocate for the most horrible crime, and for unpopular causes. The Bar has given representation fearlessly, regardless of the origins of the client, the power of the court, or the influence of outsiders, such as the government. That should not be lost amid changes that are economically driven."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor