Iron fist in a velvet glove to fight the Bar's corner

David Penry-Davey takes a positive view of people and seeks to avoid confrontation. But don't mistake this for weakness. Stephen Ward met the barristers' champion
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David Penry-Davey is a tall man, avuncular in manner; three of his four main leisure interests are active - golf (he was once Bar champion) cycling and fell walking - but at 53 he looks as though he does them all now at a leisurely pace. For the next 12 months he is likely to do them all less frequently; Bar chairmen are notoriously busy, and he recognises his year in office is a crunch one for the profession, with a series of legal reforms and battles coming to crises.

He is self-confessedly not a politician: he has only been involved in Bar Council business for four years and recognises that many of his "constituents" have enough to do with their jobs and family without extra-curricular Bar Council business. The Bar organises these things without the acrimony of the recent Law Society contest: by contesting the vice-presidency, then promoting him (so far, it's always been a man) the next year. Mr Penry-Davey was elected as vice-chairman ahead of Martin Bowley, a seasoned streetfighter with radical criticisms of the structure of the profession, notably the Inns of Court.

Legal aid reform is potentially the greatest threat to barristers. The Green Paper proposals last year would franchise solicitors' firms, with contracts paying lump sums for a given number of cases. If solicitors are working to a fixed budget, they will be under pressure to use cheap barristers, or even solicitor advocates who may not be good enough. There are ways to audit the quality of work for solicitors, but Mr Penry-Davey asks: "How can you guarantee quality of advocacy? I don't believe there is a way."

He supports the Woolf plans to speed up civil justice in principle, but only if there is enough money to retrain judges and appoint enough new ones as necessary. He disagrees with Michael Huebner, head of the new Court Service, who believes the necessary money for "pump-priming" can be found by juggling existing budgets.

The last quarter of 1995 was dominated by an unprecedented clash between the Government and the judiciary over sentencing and judicial review, which has inevitably sucked the Bar in on the side of the judiciary. Mr Penry-Davey's comments are a classic example of an iron fist in a velvet glove: "I welcome a healthy debate on the limits to judicial review and discretion in sentencing."

He also says he has a positive view of Michael Howard and other politicians. "I believe they listen," he says. He sees Mr Howard's apparent about- turn last week over plans for compulsory identity cards as another example of politicians listening to reason.

But Mr Penry-Davey was less diplomatic behind closed doors when he told the Bar Council in his inaugural speech: "Justice is what matters in the end. We will not stand by and watch short-term expediency take precedence."

In short, Mr Penry-Davey is happy to be non-confrontational on the surface - to make it easy for politicians to back down without losing face. But no one should mistake that for weakness where he believes the judges and lawyers for once have public sympathy.

One challenge for the new Bar chairman, which eluded even his mild-mannered predecessor, Peter Goldsmith, is to maintain cordial terms with the Law Society's populist president, Martin Mears.

"The relations depend on more than the presidents," he says. He recognises the importance of unity. "Though in some areas we are in competition with solicitors, we spend much time working with them and I believe it is in our interests as well as the client's that we work with the Law Society."

Mr Goldsmith finally snapped at the end of last year, when Mr Mears mocked the Bar Council's equality code. Mr Penry-Davey is no less protective of that code: "Advancement and success at the Bar should depend on merit alone," he insists. "As long as there is discrimination and lack of equality, even if it is only in a few cases, we must try to end it."

On the critical factor of social class, which the code doesn't mention, he does not accept that the Bar is elitist. He recalls the Labour MP Chris Mullin quizzing the four-person delegation from the Bar to the Home Affairs Select Committee. None had gone to public schools, and only one to Oxbridge. Despite his double-barrelled name, Mr Penry-Davey is a product of Hastings Grammar School and King's College, London. His father was a Conservative, and a solicitor.

Aside from policy, Bar chairmen have to react to events on behalf of the profession. As a fraud expert, Mr Penry-Davy is well qualified to comment on the Maxwell trial. He believes itshowed the system working. The Serious Fraud Office has a fairly healthy conviction rate overall, he says. You shouldn't see it as a failure if somebody is acquitted: that implies they are guilty, he insists. "The case was clearly presented, and from the length of time they took, the jury apparently considered the evidence carefully." He is a strong supporter of juries: "My experience over many years tells me that generally they've got it right and I can't see the prospect of any alternative improving on that record.

There are internal as well as external politics for him to consider, too: conservative, but not reactionary, he will continue Mr Goldsmith's modernising and not universally popular path. He considers the Bar's new complaints procedure as essential if the body is to keep its role as regulator as well as trade union for the profession. He believes strongly in advocacy training in first three years of practice: "I saw a course of 40 people go on video every day. Of course, you learn by experience, but they all improved dramatically."

Befitting a barristers' leader, his progressive egalitarianism and logic break down over the question of wigs. "They are a symbol of formality and good behaviour, not pomp," he says. They are popular with the public. He wants barristers to keep them. "People recognise who we are and what we do by the wigs." But he doesn't want solicitor advocates to wear them even though they carry out the same role. Won't people see that as small- minded? "I'm sure the public doesn't see it like that," he insists.