Welcome to the South Eastern Circuit
Mark Fenhalls QC, Leader of the SEC
I am honoured and delighted to have been elected as the new Circuit Leader and I look forward to serving the SEC and its members. At the outset I would like to offer my sincere thanks to two people - Kerim our outgoing Leader, who has worked tirelessly for the last two years to improve the lot of the profession and Andrew Walker QC for his shift as Chair of the Bar. The Circuit is indebted to both for everything they have striven to achieve.
I would like to welcome Richard Atkins QC as the new Bar Council Chair. Richard is a former leader of the Midland and Oxford Circuit and understands only too well the damaging effects that cuts to public expenditure have had on the justice system in recent years.
Much of the public debate in 2018 has focused on the sustainability and working conditions of the Criminal Bar. Rest assured this work will not relent, as we campaign in partnership with the Bar Council, other Circuits and the CBA to have “Justice” viewed in a more favourable light across Government. We want proper levels of funding to be restored to prosecution as well as defence work. Ultimately our fight may not be so much with the MoJ, but in truth more with the Treasury and the competing spending departments. Please make sure your chambers is sending someone to the meetings for juniors called by the CBA this evening so as many views as possible are heard.
However urgent action is required in civil as well as criminal. One focus in early 2019 will be the state of the ongoing work by the MoJ on its LASPO review that began in earnest last year. The huge damage caused by effectively removing legal aid from huge swathes of family and social welfare law is well known. Films like this onehelp tell the story.
Persuading our political classes to put resources into the justice system is no easy task in the current political context, and may become even harder if the worst happens this year. But wherever it can, the Circuit will support the Specialist Bar Associations and their work with the Bar Council, to argue for reform based upon evidence and the public interest. The starting point may be the scope of legal aid provision, but this work also extends to shining a spotlight on the crumbling fabric of so many court centres. Having spent much of the autumn at Southwark Crown Court on a seat held together by yellow and black police tape and tripping over duct tape used to patch the worn out carpet, the needs are obvious and urgent.
Richard Atkins is very keen to visit as many court centres as possible across the Circuit in the early part of the year, so do let us know (Leader@southeastcircuit.org.uk) if you are having a Mess event to which he could be invited. Ideally we can visit combined court centres and meet practitioners and Judges dealing with all practise areas.
There are two specific other areas I would like your help to address this year.
Fighting the negative effects of digitalisation
None of us can reverse the tide of digitalisation. We all benefit in many ways from being able to run our lives online. However while this way of living and working has its benefits, it has also created new problems for the Bar. The potential to be isolated has become far more acute as Chambers life is eroded. In crime, this is particularly true as the effects of the DCS play out. These changes have also resulted in unprecedented pressure on every one of us as we are expected to maintain a 24-hour review of our email and phones and be available to react to messages at any time of day. All of our personal lives are suffering and it is hard to manage these pressures. And there is another looming problem. For many it is very convenient to have work arriving by hyperlinked invitation or on a disc couriered to home. Does anyone regret no longer having to travel in to collect cheques from clerks and then queue at the bank? But changes like these mean that the society offered by Chambers, the friendships and support networks that so many of us grew up with and take for granted are now, I fear, harder to build and sustain. In particular the learning culture of Chambers - how it trains its pupils and then mentors young tenants - is under huge threat. Who among us does not in truth need opinion of colleagues? Every barrister who values what his or her friends in Chambers have provided over the years as a daily sounding board for the challenges of today and tomorrow’s case ought to be thinking about this. And if a Mess, SBA, Circuit or Inn has played a positive role during your career, perhaps begin to consider what you can do to help sustain these institutions too.
Social Mobility and the Bar
No one needs to be reminded of the critical importance of the Bar, and ultimately the Bench, reflecting the diversity of the society it serves. We all have an interest in ensuring that the brightest and best people can become (and remain) barristers, whatever their background or circumstances. Huge levels of student debt make this increasingly difficult, particularly in areas of practise most threatened by cuts to public funding. The Inns are to be applauded for their efforts to explore offering their own two-part BPTC training, which aims to tackle a number of the most obvious flaws and shortcomings in current courses. We must all be relentless in whatever efforts we can make, to enable aspiring advocates to build careers at the Bar if we are going to prevent our profession from being hollowed out from the bottom up.
A Reminder: Vulnerable Witness Training
Many of you will have done this already. But if not, please either contact your Inn, or perhaps look to organise an evening or two in Chambers to do the training. It is a congenial, easy way of meeting your CPD requirements for 2019. Judges are increasingly asking advocates who conduct “ground rules” hearings whether they have had the specialist training. Given that around half of contested trials in the Crown Court involve sexual allegations, it is hard to imagine any criminal practitioner can sensibly claim to be pursuing excellence if s/he has not completed the course. I am told there are a substantial number of barristers who have done the training but have not gone on to watch the online videos, which are a pre-requisite of successfully completing the process. If this is you, please sort this out.
Please feel free to write to me to let me know what you think for better or for worse. Do not assume we will know about problems unless you bring them to our attention. If something has worked well somewhere – perhaps you approve of the new ID cards – please let us know so we can try and encourage the roll out of positive developments. I wish you all well for a successful and happy 2019.
Mark Fenhalls QC