The first was on public access and the second on licensed access. I wanted to attend the last session which was "targeted at members of the Bar and the Judiciary" (and the only one to carry CPD points) but it began nearly 4 hours after the end of the previous session. It was bad enough hanging around the conference room that Inner Temple rather grandiosely call "the Parliament Chamber" for more than an hour between the public access and licensed access sessions. I found those gaps very annoying. Having set off at an unearthly hour to make the 10:00 session I did not relish a 4 hour drive from Luton through the night after the end of the last session. And I have work to do just like every other barrister. I am sure that the Bar Council would have attracted a much bigger audience had it staged the second session immediately after the first, and the third immediately after the second.
The speakers at the public access session were
- Paul Darling QC, Chair of the Access to the Bar Committee
- Tim Dutton QC Chair of the Bar
- Bridget Prentice MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice
- Professor John Flood of Westminster University, and
- Marc Beaumont, Vice Chair of the Access to the Bar Committee
All gave good speeches except Bridget Prentice MP. Her effort, which appears on the Ministry of Justice website, was almost entirely irrelevant to public access. It was little more than an overview of the Legal Services Act 2007. Almost the only time she mentioned public or licensed access was in the context that "public access and licensed access are compatible with the wider aims of the Legal Services Act". Talk about back-handed compliments. The thrust of her argument was that legal disciplinary practices and alternative business structures should bring down the cost of legal services for the consumer. Regrettably she did not stay long enough for me to ask her how she could reconcile her concern for consumers with her government's massive increase in court fees or its butchery of legal aid.
By far the most interesting presentation was Professor Flood's. He spoke of a world in which Google could become the world's biggest law firm. The Bar Council had commissioned him to carry out research on public and licensed access. Both schemes appeared to be working reasonably well but he believed that the Bar had to do far more to promote them. When the time came for questions I asked how the Bar could be expected to do more to promote public access unless it changed its working practices and business model. Flood seemed to agree. The other members of the panel answered quite a different question - just as witnesses try to do when faced with awkward cross-examination.
Marc Beaumont told a very entertaining tale about how large sums of money were wasted in years of party to party correspondence before counsel's opinion on the merits of the case was sought. All that money could have been saved had the client consulted a barrister in the first place, he suggested. Marc's tale seemed to strike a chord with several members of the public but he was lambasted by two solicitors in the audience who accused him of disparaging other professions - which I don't think he did.
Anyway, the first speaker in the licensed access session who happened to be an expert witness said very much the same thing. The other speakers were Desmond Browne QC (the next chair of the Bar) and Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC. I asked why we still needed to license members of the public to come to the Bar when they could now come to us under the public access scheme. The only answer that made any sense to me at all was Paul Darling's observation that licensed access provided some pre-qualification.
Though I think this event could have been better organized I am very glad that it was attempted. It was worth getting up at 05:00 this morning to support it.