There’s a lot of talk about the death of the Independent Bar; a need for change and drastic restructure that may simply be too late. The debate, however, rages on. Many believe that the financial difficulties facing the publicly funded Bar are real, but that they are not affecting the privately funded Bar. As a result, the self-employed Barrister lives on, and the Bar once again fails to change.
The problem with dismissing the Public Bar as an irrefutable casualty of the legal aid cuts, is that the public’s perspective of the Bar goes with it. The publicly funded Bar is the highly dramatised ideal of the Bar that is embedded in our society’s consciousness. If you think of Barristers, you think of wigs in the Old Bailey, you don’t think of conferences, opinions and a civil tribunal. As a majority, people aren't aware of what a barrister's role would be outside a criminal courtroom.
However, that image also conjures up rich lawyers, making money from people doing wrong. I once had a young offender ask me to explain what the a barrister's role was in his trial. At the end he said, “So, if I don't commit crimes, you don't get paid?”. It took every ounce of my intellectual ability to find a response that didn't leave him believing he was paying my bills by robbing the local shop (badly). It's hardly a beneficial way to start off attitudes to direct access.
The Bar needs to play off their positive public image and make people want to save them. I've said it before, if it's a choice between the NHS and the legal aid cuts, it's going to be the NHS that the public save. People find it hard to care about criminals and illegal immigrants when they can't relate. They don't realise they could end up in court, they don't realise it's threatening the standard of legal assistance given to people fighting for their children, amongst other very real issues.
It’s not a drastic restructure that’s needed to save the independent Bar, it’s the public affections. Society needs to understand what the Bar is, why the stereotype of white middle-class men making a living from young criminals, is untrue, and most of all why Barristers are needed. Differences between solicitors and Barristers are lessening so it’s time for the Bar to justify the remnants of what separates it. Transparency is key. We have a product, let's learn how to market it.
I’m not talking about the Bar becoming an “every-man trade”. Not by a long shot. There is nothing wrong with being part of an elite profession. I remember a speech from Nicholas Lavender QC, to would be members of the Bar, stressing that the word “elite” is not a dirty and discriminatory word. A Barrister should be proud of being part of an elite institution; but one that is not exclusive.
In being honest about how a barrister works, how they’re paid and how hard they work as standard, we can regain some credibility and prove that not everyone earns a small fortune. No member of the public wants to help save something that they believe to be lucrative and self-destructive.
The Bar needs to become diverse, attract diverse entrants to the profession and prove that it's a diverse service. This means that the public image has to change, and accessibility has to be a priority. Times are changing, and the Bar should change, but it should not be destroyed.
Emily Lanham is a law graduate currently working as a paralegal in a London Chambers and independently with Burton Copeland solicitors, based in Manchester and London (http://www.burtoncopeland.com). She embarks on the BPTC part time in September 2014.