Perceptions of the Bar

In November 07 the Bar Standards Board published the results of a piece of commissioned MORI research on Perceptions of Barristers. Somewhat shamefully I have failed to comment on it before now and it was only when a review of the report appeared in this month’s Counsel magazine that I have been galvanised into action and finally looked at the detail of the report.

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There are some interesting findings, and some stark mismatches between what we barristers think of ourselves, what we think other people think of us and what other people actually think of us! In very broad terms the views of the general public appear to be less negative than we expect them to be, for example 47% of barristers believe that the public think barristers are out of touch whereas only 16% of the public think this. However whilst 56% of barristers believe the public think barristers are a trusted and highly regarded profession when in fact only around three in ten members of the public feel this. 80% of barristers expect the public to think barristers are well paid, whilst in fact only 60% of the public think that. And only 27% of us believe we are well paid.

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Whilst this report plainly covers some of the issues touched upon in this blog and in the comments arising from various posts – around the integrity of the bar, the effectiveness of the family court system and the levels of service provided to clients sadly, like so much material published about the Bar, this is really a piece of work about the criminal bar. Although a large sample of the general public were sampled (some of whom no doubt have had a brush with a family barrister), 100% of the lay clients sampled for the purposes of the qualitative element of the survey were either prisoners, acquitted defendants or ‘commercial’ clients. There were no lay clients interviewed who had been involved in the family justice system, and so I would say these results are likely to be unreliable in terms of perceptions of the bar both overall and specifically the family bar. Aside from the criminal justice system it is through the family court system that most people encournter us and the criminal bar is simply a different kettle of fish.

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I should think that similar issues would arise to those that cropped up in this report, such as the question of client care and the time spent with a client before a hearing (I would hope that the Family Bar would fare better on this than the bar as a whole) and the question of the integrity of the profession (where I fear the Family Bar might fare rather worse, at least in the eyes of lay clients or litigants in person). But as far as I am aware there is no equivalent report out there which can help us answer those questions except anecdotally. It would be an important piece of work in times when the family legal aid system is under review and the family bar is under siege as the Government tries to cut costs for the important work that we do and tries to ensure that public funding is utilised in cost effective ways.

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Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a comparative piece of work commissioned that told us what family barristers think of themselves, and what the general public think of them? However, I don’t suppose the Bar Standards Board has the inclination and I don’t suppose the Family Law Bar Association has the money. What a shame.

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The Family Bar is the one area of the bar that people are likely to come into contact regardless of who they are. They deserve to be recognised as a distinct and important part of the Bar. This report unfortunately demonstrates the common assumption that what is applicable to the Criminal Bar is applicable to the rest of it (or perhaps of forgetting that other areas even exist). It would have been so much more interesting if the report had considered whether or not perceptions of the Bar were uniform across all areas of work or not. I do not know if this is a flaw in the brief from the Bar Standards Board to MORI or the work carried out by them, but someone somewhere needs to examine the perception that ‘The Bar’ is synonomous with ‘The Criminal Bar’. It is not.

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P.S.

I am afraid it is no surprise to me that the limitations of this report are not brought identified in Counsel magazine which is just one culprit of the sloppy thinking about the (criminal) bar identified above. It is a source of long-standing irritation on my part that Counsel Magazine (‘The Journal of the Bar of England and Wales’ and paid for by my subscriptions) contains precious little applicable or of interest to those of us who practice at the ever expanding Family Bar. I read it hopefully every month, and almost every month I am disappointed (it is redeemed only by the regular inclusion of articles on overarching topics like Human Rights). But this is a whinge for another blog entry, or perhaps I should just write to the Editor and make my point directly?….

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