First woman leader of the Bar considers case for shake-up

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Heather Hallett QC, the first woman chairman of the Bar Council, is considering plans for a Bar Ombudsman to help stamp out discrimination and harassment in the profession. Such a figure - probably a high-profile lawyer - would handle complaints against barristers' chambers and censure those found guilty of discrimination on the grounds of gender, age or race.

Ms Hallett, a deputy High Court judge, said such a move was "well worth considering" and she also backed an equal opportunities committee which would have responsibility for seeing that the profession was open to all sections of society. She said the council was already asking the Government for help with a loan system for law graduates to cover their Bar vocational course year, to ensure the Bar did not become a white, male "middle-class preserve".

A policeman's daughter, Ms Hallett, who went to state schools, added: "I hope that my election as chairman will prove that someone from a modest background and who is female can make it."

She conceded that the profession still has a bad public and media image. In her year of office she is promoting schemes for barristers to get involved in training in victim support schemes, and in visiting schools, so that the public could realise that members of the Bar did not have "two heads".

Ms Hallett has also announced a new task force which will examine how to control costs in high-profile criminal trials, which at present take up around pounds 100m of legal aid a year. It will consider a new contract scheme in which barristers would work at a set rate, determined in advance.

However, Ms Hallett, an experienced criminal barrister, is unhappy with government attacks - led by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg - on so-called "fat cat" lawyers. Although the council was pushing for reform, Ms Hallett said that under the current proposals access to justice would be cut for the less well-off.

On the jury system, Ms Hallett said she personally wanted to see the age at which people sit on juries raised from 18 to 21.