Bar set to banish alcoholic barristers

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Barristers with alcohol or drug problems face suspension by the Bar Council because they are "a danger to the public". Under new powers granted by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and revealed today, the council will be able to take immediate action against barristers who are "medically unfit" to practise.

Michael Scott, the Bar complaints commissioner, said the measure was needed to deal with barristers who were a "danger to the public and themselves". He identified the prime area of concern as alcoholism

Recent research published by Solcare, the charity which arranges counselling for lawyers who have alcohol, drugs or stress-related problems, shows that both drug and alcohol dependencies have become prevalent within the legal profession.

According to Solcare, lawyers are dying from liver cirrhosis at double the average national rate and come fourth in the league table for alcohol-related deaths, behind publicans, seafarers and doctors.

Solcare also says that cocaine is a widespread problem among lawyers. In one counselling case, the barrister had been supplied with the drug by one of his own clients.

Mr Scott, a former major-general who led a battalion in the battle of Tumbledown in the Falklands war, said that in one case he had only discovered a barrister's alcohol problem because a solicitor complained that the barrister had not answered his letters.

"When I made inquiries," said Mr Scott, "it was clear that the man was going to pieces. He admitted he had an alcohol problem but there was no mechanism for dealing with him."

Under the new procedure, a barrister with a drink or drug problem can be suspended from practice "until he sorts himself out". Mr Scott said: "I believe this [new power] will be a substantial boost to public confidence."

The new power, outlined in the Bar complaints commissioner's annual report, also closes a loophole which has prevented the Bar from suspending barristers convicted of a serious criminal offences until they appeared in front of a Bar tribunal.

Mark Stubbs, head of regulation at the Bar, said one recent case which illustrated the point was that of Carol Winston-Churchill, who blackmailed a wealthy investment banker by threatening to tell his employers he was gay.

After the case it emerged that Winston-Churchill had been due to stand trial at the Old Bailey and Southwark Crown Court for the same offence in September 1987, but failed to turn up. In the meantime she had continued to practise as a barrister. The Bar said that she had now been disbarred for other matters.

Overall, complaints against barristers for 1999 fell by 10 per cent compared to the previous year. Mr Scott said the number of complaints dropped from 631 in 1998 to 568 in 1999.

Included in the report was the case of a barrister found guilty of serious professional misconduct and fined £3,000 after it emerged that an article he claimed to have written, and which was published in a legal magazine, was the work of someone else.

A second barrister was formally reprimanded after he was rude to a judge by suggesting his summing up of a trial was likely to be biased.

Another was given a dressing down after she appeared at a matrimonial contact hearing representing the mother, when at a previous hearing she had acted for the father. The complaint was later dismissed.

Mr Scott said the majority of lay complaints were from prisoners or about "neighbourhood and matrimonial" matters.