Barristers face sharp increase in complaints

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The Independent Online

Barristers face an almost unprecedented tide of complaints from divorcing couples, criminals and other dissatisfied clients, a report into the conduct of the Bar has found.

Last year 464 people complained about the behaviour of their barrister, a figure set to increase when the public is given greater access to advocates, the Bar Complaints Commissioner warns in his annual report published today.

Michael Scott, the commissioner, said he was "particularly irritated" by the number of "tit-for-tat" complaints generated by one barrister complaining about another.

"I am concerned that too much use is being made of my office by barristers who have some grievance against other barristers," he said. "Usually it involves the aftermath of a dissolution of chambers, a dispute over fee collection or non-payment of rent."

He also described as "tiresome" solicitors who "dressed up" disputes over fees as complaints about barristers' behaviour.

While last year's increase in the number of complaints amounted to a "modest" 19, Mr Scott predicted there would be many more complaints from the public once proposals for wider access to barristers had been implemented.

Last month, the Bar Council voted unanimously to change its professional rules so that people could approach a barrister without using a solicitor as an intermediary in civil cases. The proposal is part of a package of reforms which have been submitted to the Office of Fair Trading.

The majority of complaints by the public last year, Mr Scott said, were from disgruntled prisoners, mostly sex offenders, or husbands and wives who felt let down by their barrister in divorce proceedings.

"The matrimonial complaints range from child contact difficulties to financial shenanigans from the other side [in the divorce]. Some of these can be very difficult and I often have to seek professional advice," he said.

But other clients complained of barristers who were rude, arrogant or late for court.

Last month, a leading barrister, Gordon Pringle, was suspended for a year by the Bar Council for being racist to a solicitor's clerk.

Mr Pringle, a colleague of the black Labour minister Baroness Scotland of Asthal, used words that the Council of the Inns of Court – the disciplinary body that oversees the profession – said were "intentionally racist".

By calling a solicitor's clerk, Eric Adusei, 35, a "blackamoor" and telling a joke in which the clerk was cast in a "demeaning role", Mr Pringle had brought the profession into disrepute, the council's tribunal said. Mr Pringle, 52, was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £500 costs on the two out of five complaints against him which were upheld.

Mr Scott said a recent case in the House of Lords, which removed an advocate's immunity from being sued, had also stimulated a growth in complaints for "inadequate professional service", resulting in a doubling of such cases being settled by the Bar's adjudication panel.

He said it was important to remember the problems faced by barristers at the sharp end of the profession. "Members of the public, who think a barrister's day begins at 10am by alighting from the Rolls and gently easing to a large lunch in the Garrick [Club], should see the serious financial difficulties many face at the unglamorous end," he said.