Law: A change in practice: Robert Seabrook talks to Sharon Wallach about consultations taking place to examine the Bar's future

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Change is coming to the Bar. Barristers are following solicitors into the market-place, facing up to the demands of competition and questioning the foundations of their practice.

Consultations are either under way, or planned, on almost every aspect of the Bar's practices and traditions. When Robert Seabrook QC took over the chair of the Bar Council, he appointed James Mundy QC to run a new policy unit, looking at the Bar's restrictive practices. The unit has so far published consultation papers on direct access and partnership.

Another exercise, this time on professional standards, was launched earlier this month by the independent standards review body established by the Bar Council and chaired by Lord Weedon of Alexander QC.

Also under the microscope is the future of education at the Bar. One of the issues is whether to validate vocational courses at institutions other than the Council of Legal Education, which currently has a monopoly.

Mr Seabrook is keen to avoid prejudging the results of this consultation, but is, he says, becoming convinced that the validation route is the one to adopt, even though it would bring serious problems.

For example, it would lead to far greater numbers emerging from Bar school, and would also bring resource implications. 'It is a matter of working out ways of coping,' Mr Seabrook says. 'It is absolutely essential that the system is fair, and we must not allow students' legitimate expectations to be dashed.'

The attractions of validation, in his view, are that it would diversify points of selection, and facilitate an element of common education with solicitors. It would also defer the point at which the student has to make a decision on which side of the profession to opt for, and break down some of the differences between barristers and solicitors.

Mr Seabrook is not worried that more in-common training could lead to fusion of the two arms of the profession. 'I don't believe it is just the content of the courses that gives us our particular qualifications,' he says. On-the-job training is what 'teaches the nuts and bolts, and gives you the opportunity for acquiring the essentials of practice.'

A separate Bar, he emphasises, is of great public value, because 'it offers a unique pool of choice for people seeking a specialist advocate.' He believes its disappearance would be an 'appalling loss to the range of legal services in the country.'

One of the thorny issues in the education debate is selection for Bar school. A temporary system is in place, but Mr Seabrook says a more satisfactory and less restrictive procedure has to be found. The old system worked on the basis of training the correct number of potential barristers to meet the likely demand.

'It was a worthy objective, but then the numbers embarking on training escalated enormously,' Mr Seabrook says. 'So, we moved away from purely academic criteria, and looked more generally for the qualities most likely to produce successful barristers.'

This, however, threw up some anomalies, and so he has called for a 'thorough and urgent analysis' of this year's results. This is particularly important if validation is introduced: it would be even harder to control the greater numbers emerging from Bar school. Some help will come from the draft equality code being tested this year and which will, Mr Seabrook says, assume very great importance in the future.

What must not happen is the limiting of the availability of law degrees. 'Law is a subject that everyone should be entitled to study. What we must do is make sure that no one has unrealistic expectations,' he says. 'A law degree is not a passport to practice.'

Another question arising from increasing numbers entering the profession is whether there will be enough work to support them. Mr Seabrook thinks there will. 'Our view is coloured by four years of unprecedented post-war recession, which may be giving a false picture,' he says. 'The historical trend is for an increasing demand for lawyers and legal services, particularly in the light of the increasing complexities of the modern world.

'What we need to focus on is quality of service,' Mr Seabrook says. 'This was one of the reasons behind my asking Lord Alexander to take up a review of professional standards. Perhaps the doldrums are gearing us up for a much more promising future which takes greater account of the needs of clients. It is imperative we provide a good service.'

The function of the policy unit is to examine whether the Bar's restrictive practices can be justified, or need to be changed. 'It is imperative that we maintain a clear identity, and focus on what is the functional role of the barrister. If not, we might as well go the route of fusion (of the two branches of the profession),' Mr Seabrook says.

''The real changes are likely to be a feature of how we provide services. I am thinking of a much greater attention to the clients' needs in a rapidly changing world, particularly as cross-border providers of legal services.'

The way chambers are organised is also under scrutiny. Barristers currently operate independently within a set of chambers, and the policy unit is looking at the possibility of introducing the idea of partnership - nothing is sacrosanct, Mr Seabrook notes.

'We are anxious not to stop people working as they want - unless there is a good reason not to - and provided it is consistent with our functional role. There are already variations in the way chambers are managed,' says Mr Seabrook. 'But we have to focus much more on the needs of both the profession and the lay client.'

But, he stresses, the baby must not be thrown out with the bath water. 'I do believe that the talent at the Bar is quite extraordinary, and it is easy to lose sight of this. You can get an opinion on any aspect of the law of this country or of virtually anywhere in the world.

'What is important is to look at the functions of the solicitor and the barrister, to get some logical concept of our respective roles. I would draw a very firm line under anything that would blur those roles. But we will have open discussion about it, to try to get it right. The problems are too big for us to deal with alone.' And after all the consultation? 'I hope,' Mr Seabrook says, 'that we will emerge with our feet on the ground and facing a flourishing future.'

(Photograph omitted)