Brief visit to Brixton helps image of the law

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The Independent Online
A group of London barristers has moved from the Temple to set up practice in Brixton, forming the first self-styled neighbourhood chambers in the country. Michael Streeter looks at the changing face of the Bar.

The Acre Lane Neighbourhood Chambers are just 15 minutes away from the traditional, closeted environs of London barristers, but, on a superficial glance at least, seem to inhabit a different world.

A radical team of six lawyers has set up work in open plan offices above a wine bar in one of the capital's most culturally diverse streets in the heart of Brixton.

The idea of the new chambers is to fuse the high professional standards of the Bar with the openness and easy access of a community practice. If successful, it could be the start of a mini-revolution across the country in the way that barristers arrange their work, and could help change their stuffy public image.

Neelim Sultan, one of the founding members of the new chambers, said that the public tended to see barristers as remote. "People's perception of doctors is far more sympathetic," she said.

"By being in the community we are making a statement, we are saying 'You do not have to be in the Temple or have to have a certain image to be a barrister'." At the same time, the practice, which will combine its advocacy role with campaigning on key issues, wants to ensure that its standards match the rest of the Bar.

The barristers chose Brixton, in south London, because Ms Sultan had already worked and lived in the area, and not for any reason based on the areas' old reputation as a troublespot. "Brixton is not all about guns and robberies, far from it ... We think Brixton is a really representative example of an urban locality," she said.

In the two months since the barristers opened for business, the reaction from people locally, both inside and outside the legal profession, has been mostly positive. "It can only be a benefit for them to have such a service on their doorstep," said Ms Sultan. Some fellow barristers might feel they were being "foolhardy" but the general reaction among colleagues had been supportive.

There are signs that the concept of a neighbourhood chambers could be catching on. The Bar Council has just launched a pilot scheme where 18 sets of chambers around the country will work closely with local advice agencies such as Shelter and the Citizens Advice Bureau. The Government, too, as part of its reform of civil justice, has proposed a Community Legal Service, though critics doubt whether, with no new money available, this idea will come to much.

The prominent barrister Michael Mansfield QC, patron of the new chambers, said he believed the new practice would lead to similar ventures: "I hope this will show the way for others."

Ms Sultan says she looks forward to that day. "I would like to think that one day it will be quite commonplace to have a practice in Brixton. That it would be seen as quite logical and acceptable."