The creation of a complaints board, which could force barristers to pay disgruntled clients up to pounds 2,000 and to repay fees, is one of the key recommendations made by a committee of legal experts.
Recommendations contained in a report published yesterday by the Bar Standards Review, an independent organisation, are expected to be adopted later this year by the Bar Council, which represents the 8,000 barristers in England and Wales. The study calls for a series of fundamental changes in the way barristers operate, including providing clients with details of fees, greater openness and accountability, allowing counsel to speak to witnesses and making courts more user friendly, along with measures to reduce costly delays in court cases.
The review group calls for the setting up of a Barristers Complaints Bureau, which would be run by someone who was not a barrister and would have the power to order a barrister to apologise, to pay or forgo all or some of the fees, and pay compensation.
The scheme would cost about pounds 160,000 a year to run and would be expected to deal with about 700 complaints a year - twice the current amount. Members of the Bar Council would be expected to pay for the bureau with an average increase in fees of about pounds 20.
The offending barrister would have to pay the compensation or fine, probably from existing insurance cover. Under the system, if the bureau decided that the complaint merited disciplinary action, the matter would be referred to a disciplinary tribunal.
Standards at the Bar came under fire last year from the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice which reported that 'in those cases where counsel are incompetent, prolix and poorly prepared, action is seldom taken either to put them right or to prevent recurrence'.
The Bar is frequently accused of high fees, long-winded and inept advocacy in court, shoddy case preparation and a lack of any complaints system. The report's recommendations, if accepted, will mean a marked sea change for barristers who will have to put the consumer first.
At present barristers are disciplined for unprofessional conduct by the Bar Council's Professional Conduct Committee, but not for inadequate services, and there is no machinery for compensation.
Barristers have immunity from being sued for negligence in court, though complainants can sue for non-court work such as poor advice. They can also ask the Legal Services Ombudsman to investigate. Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, chairman of the Bar Standards Review, said: 'This report aims to be a blueprint for the Bar to ensure the highest possible standards of service to clients in years to come. The Bar must be properly accountable where it is suggested that there has been poor or inadequate service.'
He added: 'Nothing else will do for a specialist profession other than to be at the leading edge of standards.'
Lord Alexander said he expected the complaints scheme to be operating by 1996, a date which was given provisional backing by the Bar Council. The review body was set up by the Bar Council in December last year to help improve standards.
Robert Seabrook QC, chairman of the Bar Council, welcomed the report. 'I have no doubt that the Bar Council will show a willingness to embrace change when it comes to consider the detailed recommendations,' he said.
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