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Tension and infighting as barristers resign from BSB panel over quality assurance scheme

Tensions surrounding the regulation of the various limbs of the legal profession are at an all-time high as this week saw a number of barristers resign from the Bar Standards Board (BSB) disciplinary prosecution panel in protest at the imminent launch of a new quality assurance scheme.

The resignations come in a month that have revealed in more detail than ever the infighting between the various regulatory and representative bodies after the Ministry of Justice called for evidence on how best to regulate the profession going forward.

The Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates will come into force on 30 September despite continuing protests from the profession and the launch of a judicial review. The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) issued the legal challenge to the overarching Legal Services Board (LSB) earlier this month, when CBA chairman Nigel Lithman QC claimed: ‘The well-argued submissions of the criminal bar on the problems inherent in the proposed QASA scheme fell on deaf ears as our regulators determined to plough ahead and impose it in its entirety.’

The CBA is being advised on the judicial review by Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC and Tom de la Mare QC together with Baker & McKenzie dispute resolution partner Joanna Ludlam on a pro bono basis.

The group of barristers who have resigned include seven barristers from 18 Red Lion Court, while a further two from the set will reconsider their positions after fulfilling fixed hearings in their diaries.

Speaking to Legal Business, complex fraud and serious organised crime barrister Shane Collery at 18 Red Lion Court said: ‘When we started to prosecute disciplinary matters we were a self-regulating liberal profession. It was right we lent our support to assist the Bar Council in that regulation. We are no longer self-regulating. The BSB is losing the support of a significant part of the profession it regulates and it does not seem appropriate to us that we should continue to volunteer our services pro bono.

‘Should in due course the BSB seek to prosecute those who do not register for QASA or for matters connected to that we do not believe as a matter of conscience we can take part in that process.’

He adds: ‘It is a sad day when those who have contributed a lot over often many years feel driven to withdraw their support.’

In a weekly letter to the CBA published on Monday 23 September, Lithman QC stated the resignations were ‘the first signs of collateral damage in this mess.’

He added that an ‘appreciable number have found it inappropriate that they should provide this service to regulators prepared to take, but unprepared to give. Hence a significant number of highly principled individuals have resigned.

‘Who can have anything but respect and admiration for this decision? The CBA understand, approve of and support their stance. These are silks and juniors whose standing and integrity cannot be impugned.’

Morale within the criminal bar is low and Lithman QC further questioned: ‘What will be the next thing to collapse as legal aid crime dominoes towards oblivion?’

His comments came on the same day as leading human rights set Tooks Chambers announced its dissolution, blaming legal aid cuts in a scathing denouncement of justice secretary Chris Graylings policies, which it said ‘are cumulatively devastating the provision of legal services and threatening the rule of law.’

They also come in a month when the Bar Council and the BSB both called for the LSB to be abolished, while the LSB and the Legal Services Consumer Panel called for the creation of one regulator in place of the current system of multiple regulators. The City of London Law Society concluded the current arrangements are ‘dysfunctional and at some point will need to be overhauled once again.’

In response to the recent resignation of the barristers from the BSB’s prosecution panel, BSB director Dr Vanessa Davies said: ‘I am clear that we must carry out our statutory obligations as a regulator whilst doing our best to explain the rationale for our decisions to those whom we regulate but, ultimately, we cannot shirk those duties because members of the Bar disagree with us, even if we very much regret the loss of the contribution that has been made to our work by those members of the Bar.’