Now there is some room at the Inns

The proposal to allow solicitors into the Inns of Court, ending centuries of tradition, shows the scale of the changes that are sweeping through the legal world
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The Independent Online

A report published earlier this month called on the Inns of Court to open their doors to solicitors for the first time in centuries. So is it, as the Inns would have people believe, a case of adapt and survive, or is it the next step towards a merged solicitors and barristers profession?

A report published earlier this month called on the Inns of Court to open their doors to solicitors for the first time in centuries. So is it, as the Inns would have people believe, a case of adapt and survive, or is it the next step towards a merged solicitors and barristers profession?

What is clear from the report, backed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, is that the Inns of Court, like every branch of the legal profession, is facing a time of change. Pressure to compete on price and quality mean the competition between solicitors and barristers is hotting up.

Over the last decade, barristers have seen their traditional stronghold, advocacy, come under attack. The restrictive practice of allowing only barristers to appear in the country's highest courts has already come to an end.

Since 1994 solicitors have been entitled to take additional advocacy qualifications which allow them to appear in courts like the criminal Crown Court and the civil High Court and Court of Appeal. This allows them to compete directly with barristers for more heavyweight work.

So far around 1,000 solicitors have qualified to gain higher rights of audience. That number is rising each year. As the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine has made clear, the Government's aim is to achieve competition between the providers of legal services through the discipline of the market.

Only last week barristers faced another blow when the Government unveiled plans to introduce a paid criminal defence service, similar to that in the United States. Public funds going to lawyers working in the criminal courts will not dry up but in future its flow may wain.

But the Bar Council, the barristers own representative body, has not stood idly by waiting for its profession to wither. Last year, it formally launched the BarDirect scheme which sidesteps the age-old rule that barristers could only be instructed through solicitor intermediaries. It allowed organisations like trade unions, the police and hospitals to instruct barristers directly. More importantly, so can the big-paying private companies who are the mainstay of work for the huge City law firms.

The traditional role of the solicitor as the gateway to legal services is also under threat. The Inns of Court - which call barristers to the Bar, provide education and training to young barristers and an informal place for judges and barristers to meet - candidly admitted that a move to allow solicitors entry was in reaction to government policy to open-up advocacy rights to other groups. Without such a move, they said, the Inns could be seen as exclusionist and of increasing irrelevance to the administration of justice.

The terms of the proposed invitation seems to typify the battle that barristers will wage to see off any hint towards a unified profession.

Having come to the decision that solicitors might be invited to join, they decided to severely restrict the numbers who will be eligible to do so by limiting entry to those who can appear in higher courts. Numbers are likely to be further limited by the proposed hefty joining fee of £31,000 in contrast with the £385 for a barrister.

Whatever the spirit behind the offer, the Inns' proposal has been seen by many in the legal world as yet another indicator of the scale of change happening before their eyes.

The Law Society president, Robert Sayer, is unwavering in his view that the days of the split profession are numbered. "The Law Society has long thought the barriers between the two branches of the profession are becoming unnecessary and even artificial. This move [by the Inns] is another clear sign that the outdated distinction between barristers and solicitors is fading away with time," he says.

A view which Bar Council chairman, Jonathan Hirst, says is "out of touch" with the majority of solicitors "My impression is that whatever Mr Sayer may say, most solicitors value their relationship with the Bar, which for many is a valuable specialist advocacy service. Not all solicitors want to appear in court."

Although probably the most outspoken supporter of a unified profession, Mr Sayer is not alone in thinking things are going to change, particularly for barristers. Mark Humphries, a solicitor advocate with City law firm, Linklaters and chairman of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, says he thinks that barristers will remain, but in smaller numbers. Those smaller numbers, many agree, are likely to focus on highly specialist areas of work at the most serious level.

The pressure to specialise will come because of financial pressure, according to Mr Humphries. "If solicitors do more advocacy there will be less work for the Bar at the junior end, the knock-on effect will be that fewer barristers will be sustainable in private practice. Add to that the developments with the paid criminal defence service and it all creates pressure on the independent Bar."

Peter Jones, Chief Executive and Dean of Nottingham Law School, agrees that the major driving force behind change will be market forces. "Clearly clients are going to be guided by cost, quality and how long the case will take to sort out. With a more diverse number of legal and advocacy service providers, those issues will be the determining factors in how the professions fare in future."