Law Update: Hard times

Young barristers are facing increasingly hard times, according to a report published this week by the Bar Council. There has been a marked decline in the amount of work available to the young bar, while its numbers are increasing.

The report, prepared by a joint working party of the council's young barristers' and legal services committees, says that while the bar as a whole is growing, nearly a quarter of barristers have been qualified for less than five years.

The volume of work in the magistrates' court has declined by 5 per cent over the past two years, says the report, and in the Crown Court, where at present only barristers may appear, the number of Crown Prosecution Service cases has dropped by 10 per cent.

Solicitors are increasingly doing their own advocacy in criminal cases in magistrates' courts, and with the introduction in June of standard fees, young barristers are facing new competition, which is, says the report, 'skewed in favour of freelance solicitor advocates'. Under the standard-fee system, solicitors receive higher fees when they use solicitor agents rather than barristers.

Peter Goldsmith QC, chairman of the working party, says that the bar is ready and able to face increased competition, but it must be fair. The present arrangements are, he says, 'contrary to the rules of fair competition and the philosophy of the Lord Chancellor's own reforms to the legal system.'

Many young barristers are also facing financial difficulties. Not only are they receiving as little as pounds 10 or pounds 20 for magistrates' courts hearings, but they are also burdened with debts incurred in training, largely caused by the decline in availability of local authority grants. The report sets out a number of recommendations to improve the position of the young bar, on whose survival the future of the profession depends, according to Mr Goldsmith.

These include heads of chambers to ensure the fair distribution of work, the Bar Council to press the Government for a fee structure for publicly funded advocacy that does not discriminate between solicitors and barristers; and the young bar to modernise its working practices to meet the needs and expectations of clients.

The report also makes a series of recommendations to the Bar Council: that it should establish a department concerned with management and administration training; re-examine the working practices of the bar as a whole; issue best-practice guidelines for the young bar; and look at providing better publicity for training and education courses. The council should also develop a coherent strategy for the promotion of the bar to potential clients.