QC's holiday keeps client behind bars

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The Independent Online
BARRISTERS WHO take up to two months off for summer holidays are delaying cases and denying clients justice.

One defendant awaiting further proceedings has learnt he must spend five more weeks in custody because his barrister is on vacation. A judge in Manchester was told the defence QC in the drug trial, where the jury had failed to reach a verdict, had gone on a five-week holiday and could not make a bail application for his client until 6 September.

Franklin Sinclair, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said yesterday that barristers should make themselves available during the holiday season.

Many of them spend August and most of September away, a custom that has grown up around the traditional court terms, which allowed generous holiday time for lawyers for hundreds of years. Solicitors want the practice to end so clients are not denied access to justice.

Andrew Dismore, a solicitor and Labour MP for Hendon, said he suspected the only reasons barristers took such long breaks was to spend the "hundreds of thousand of pounds they have earned in the other 10 months".

Less experienced junior barristers tend to take shorter holidays because they are self-employed and cannot afford to be without work for long.

Mr Dismore urged senior barristers to consider their clients' interests and restrict their holidays to three weeks during August and September. He described the holiday mentality of barristers as symptomatic of the Bar's "unenlightened" approach to recent reforms in civil justice and changes in client care. He added that the dearth of experienced barristers during this time of the year meant solicitors often had to switch counsel in mid-litigation.

The cases most affected are those where circumstances change overnight, leaving clients in need of expert advice quickly.

At this time of year they are often told their barrister will not be back until the end of September. The delays in access to justice, say solicitors, are exacerbated by the courts' reduced timetable during August and September.

Pauline Fowler, a senior member of the Solicitors Family Law Association and vice- chairman of the Family Mediators Association, said family cases were particularly prone to the problem. "If I have an emergency over the summer I sometimes have difficulty in contacting [the right] barrister. It's not unusual to have five or six different barristers working on a case over the summer."

Solicitors want chambers to set up working rotas so there is proper cover during the summer. Mr Dismore said: "Chambers are multi-million-pound businesses yet they are still run as corner shops."

A spokesman for the Bar said: "Any [barristers'] clerk worth his salt who is told of the gravity of the case and that the case is being held up by lack of advice should be able to ensure other counsel can be found."

He said many barristers did not take two months' holiday and instead sat as judges, adding: "I'm flattered that solicitors are saying they can't cope on their own."

Mr Sinclair said most barristers simply needed to take a mobile phone with them when they were away and switch it on for two hours a day.