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Bar launches direct access website to lure punters away from solicitors

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Revamped portal is a glitzy marketing bid that is bound to raise temperatures across the profession

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Bar chiefs have backed the re-launch of an online direct access website aimed at the public in a move that could ratchet up antagonism between the two main branches of the legal profession.

The Bar Council said it was providing an official imprimatur to a project initiated by two Northern Circuit barristers — Prudence Beever and Mike Whyatt — called the Direct Access Portal.

The site acts as an online register of barristers qualified to take instructs direct from laypeople and is pitched at clients looking to avoid going through solicitors.

Barristers have to pay an annual £100 fee to be listed and the site (pictured below) has replaced the Bar Council’s earlier register. The portal is described by officials as “the main hub for consumers seeking to find a direct access barrister”.

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At a recent re-launch event in Manchester, Bar Council Chairman Alistair MacDonald QC described the portal as demonstrating that “innovation in the barristers’ profession is clearly alive and well.”

MacDonald went on to say:

The Direct Access Portal was designed with one aim in mind; to make it easier for the public to access the quality services that barristers provide. There are now thousands of barristers able to provide legal advice and other services directly to members of the public, potentially saving them money in the process. This portal will act as the point of access to these barristers.

Crime and family law specialist Beever — a 15-year-call junior at Fifteen Winckley Square chambers in Preston — said:

Our motivation for creating the Direct Access Portal was not to make a profit but to simply make life easier for anyone looking for a barrister. There is no catch. Consumers don’t have to pay a fee to find a barrister. The portal is free to use.

Beever and Whyatt — a property and financial disputes specialist at the same chambers, who was called in 1992 — developed and financed the portal jointly with Beever’s husband, a retired airline pilot.

The three have cut an “equal partnership” with the Bar Council, with each side allocating directors to the project.

The portal currently has some 300 direct access barristers listed.

The move will be seen as an aggressive commercial attack on solicitors, as the portal is a well-produced and hi-tech bid to lure clients away from them. However, the Bar Council is thought still to be smarting at the increasing numbers of solicitor-advocates qualifying with higher court rights and effectively encroaching on barristers’ traditional patch.

Responding to the portal’s re-launch, the Law Society — the body representing solicitors in England and Wales — issued a curt statement:

Solicitors provide vital support to clients in contentious matters. Clients have been able to instruct barristers directly for some time, but they may find that barristers are not able to give the full range of services and advice that solicitors can provide.

19 Comments

Satin Cut

Excellent idea.

(6)(2)

Not Amused

Really stupid idea.

Solicitors are necessary for all but the most trifling of cases. The people who don’t realise this are almost always criminal and family hacks who are desperate to earn some new money by pretending they do ‘civil’.

These people are made confident by two factors – first they are wilfully ignorant of what the CPR actually requires, second they have not lived in a world where they might be sued in professional negligence at any turn.

Given the realities of life post Jackson these people are a serious danger to clients. The BSB doesn’t understand this because the BSB is incompetent – you only need look at the right to practice litigation course to demonstrate this (although any other example from their back catalogue of regulatory incompetence will do). This is a combination of morons who don’t realise the massive danger they are in.

I appreciate that the voice of reason is never popular, but allow me a word of caution – do not respond aggressively to me unless or until you know what the word disclosure means or until you can tell me what each court guide says about bundle preparation.

(21)(7)

Anonymous

I don’t wholly disagree with this, but would suggest it is a trifle exaggerated.

In respect of criminal practitioners there are some areas where direct access is ideal, such as road traffic offence matters which are likley to involve significant legal argument. In those cases there is unlikley to be any real need for a solicitor and a directly instructed barrister is likley to be more suited to any significant legal argument that arises.

As for family practitioners, there is now a rising tide of unregulated, ‘professional’ McKenzie friends that uninformed litigants are instructing because they believe the cost of solicitors and barristers is out of reach. However, a junior barrister is often the same price or cheaper than these so-called professional McKenzie friends. If it is a case of being able to afford just one lawyer, then I would suggest the barrister is preferable.

Quite aside from that, you raise concerns about CPR compliance. It is worth noting that in my, admittedly limited, experience there is a real concern about solicitors knowing and complying with the CPR themselves. Indeed a friend who recently completed the LPC said there is no formal instruction on the CPR/White Book at all. Yet BPTC students must swallow it whole to pass the Bar. So it may be that good solicitors are very good at the CPR, but less good solicitors are not. If it comes down to choosing between a ‘less good solicitor’ or a direcctly instructed barrister, then it may be that the barrister is preferable.

Having said all that, in an ideal world litigants would have access to both a solicitor and barrister, because, as you say, in many cases solicitors are indispensable.

(4)(2)

Anonymous

I just finished the LPC with a distinction, and can assure you that I polished both CPR and White Book off with a nice chianti.

(1)(0)

James A

Absolutely agree Not Amused (first time for everything!) As a barrister who transferred to the dark side a few years ago (along with all the higher rights that gives me, sorry) I was amazed the first year or so how little I knew.

There are certainly barristers who are excellent with direct access, they know their way around the CPR and all that requires. However, as you say, many are not. They have no experience of the worry of being sued at every turn and no conception of costs schedules, disclosure, trial bundles and time limits.

As a firm we still receive many calls each week from barristers that undertake direct access asking us to take on the paperwork side of the case as they have got themselves in such a muddle with it, and frankly can’t be bothered with it. Who becomes a barrister to fill in costs schedules and deal with disclosure?

I understand the Bar becoming annoyed with solicitors “stealing” the work of the junior bar with solicitor-advocates, but can’t see how the Bar “stealing” the paperwork from solicitors will lead to anything other than miserable clients, solicitors and barristers.

Direct Access can be an excellent tool, but should not be marketed as a viable alternative to solicitors in all cases.

(3)(0)

Not Amused

“Who becomes a barrister to fill in costs schedules and deal with disclosure?”

Sadly this is the life of lots of commercial barristers now (particularly young juniors), but I know full well that I couldn’t do even the limited amount that I do without the assistance of my sols.

The whole thing is weird. The SRA argued for higher rights even though the sols don’t really use them so the BSB acts like an angry divorcee and pointlessly demands direct access. Two squabbling children of regulators, neither of whom has the slightest clue what it is doing (or really the slightest justification for existing). Combine that with a dying legal aid Bar, made cocky by never fearing negligence before and we have the makings of a real shit storm.

(0)(0)

Simon Myerson QC

I disagree with Not Amused. He misses the key point that direct access has 3 key advantages. First, it allows the client and counsel, together, to control the costs of the litigation. That means it is likely to be cheaper. Secondly, in litigation where the legal and factual issues are comparatively simple and the case is likely either to settle quickly or to go to trial, it permits the client to utilise the more expensive services of solicitors on an ‘as needed’ basis. Very few will turn down the work. Thirdly, it enables counsel to gently remind solicitors that they can sometimes be a source of work. In these days of ‘what can you do for me?’ that can be a help.

(3)(5)

James A

Direct Access is certainly a tool that is useful on occassion, however this new site seems to be marketing itself as a viable alternative to needing to instruct solicitors which is where I have the concern.

You say that one key point is: “it permits the client to utilise the more expensive services of solicitors on an ‘as needed’ basis.” This for me is an issue, not a key selling point. There are many times when we are instructed by a barrister on direct access to “deal with disclosure”. Often very late in the day, this means looking at a case with no prior knowledge and having to deal with something that would have been much easier if the solicitor had conduct of the case from the start. This ad-hoc approach is more expensive in the long run. It is the same as solicitors briefing Counsel. A well worded brief, set out properly and given in good time will allow the barrister the best chance of understanding and running the case without the need to keep going back to those instructing.

Also, if ad-hoc services are required that validates Not Amused’s point that many barristers do not feel comfortable, or simply do not want to deal, with the more tedious side of litigation.

I have seen both sides to the profession and for me direct access can be useful in some cases, but the concern is that the Bar start to market this as an alternative to Solicitors in all cases simply becuase they are getting annoyed with the SRA.

And in response to your comment that you know your way around the CPR, many barristers do and make excellent direct access barristers. With 22 years experience and being a QC I would imagine you have a wealth of knowledge that many of us crave. But with respect, you are probably not going to be the main provider of direct access services, that is likely to fall to teh struggling junior bar who need work anywhere they can get it.

To finish with a quote from your own profile on chambers: ” working as a team is important and that the team should include both Instructing Solicitor and the lay client.”

(4)(0)

Not Amused

Your first two points could and did happen before direct access. Clients negotiate differing levels of involvement with their sols all the time. The third point is not obviously of benefit to the public, but is noted. I would say that some of us manage to refer work to sols without the need to hawk for direct access work.

I am glad you know the CPR and the court guides and that you know disclosure. I mention them specifically because there is a point I think you miss – what we are arguing about really is the justice gap. Cases of 0 to 10k are best done without lawyers. Cases of circa 80 to 100k+ are likely to be complex and are (likely – I don’t actually know the boundary these days) multi track trials which require solicitor support and thus (contrary to your view) don’t require or benefit from direct access.

That leaves what Harry Woolf termed ‘fast track’ cases. They’ve very largely fallen out of fashion (although I expect I may just be ignorant of most of them). IF the people pushing direct access limited it to fast track cases THEN I might be content. But they don’t. And unlike you they give me no confidence that they even know what fast track is. Indeed it gives me no comfort at all that one of the founders of this ‘wizzy’ idea purports to specialise in finance disputes – any such dispute under 150k should go to the ombudsman, not a direct access barrister.

And that leaves aside the fact that me having full confidence in you is not the same as me having full confidence in the vast majority of direct access loonies. This isn’t self interest here, or rather it is a tangential one – these fools are going to push up our insurance costs with this over confident madness. The direct access cases are more likely to be in the “should this even be litigated” justice gap of 11 to 80k gap which legal aid has so unhelpfully vacated. A bunch of non-expert non-CPR barristers breezing in and (likely) messing it up is no solution to the removal of legal aid.

(0)(1)

Simon Myerson

You can’t make decisions based on your own assessment of an insurance risk.

You assume that every case will go to trial. As I said, direct access works where the case is likely to settle. That is to say, 90%+ of cases.

(2)(1)

Not Amused

If I took your arguments I would still need a fundamental restructuring of the DA rules.

Currently there is no suggestion DA is focused on or limited to cases ‘likely to settle’. No mechanism for identifying those cases exists in any event and settling a case because the DA barrister has messed up wouldn’t show up on any operational efficiency checks.

The DA system as it stands represents a huge risk for the public and non-DA barristers. Given the need for sols in any 80k+ proceedings, the system will inevitably fail and probably in some catastrophic and tragic way.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

“Cases of 0 to 10k are best done without lawyers”.

– not necessarily! I think most sensible people with a dispute in the £3-10k bracket would happily pay for advice and representation. DA is a great sideline for the junior civil bar.

More importantly, when friends of friends are referred to you with a legal problem, you have a proper structure to advise them under on a paid basis rather than the options being doing it for free or sending them to a sol.

(0)(0)

Simon Myerson QC

PS. I know what disclosure is. Also bundles. Also the CPR.

(5)(1)

Simon Myerson

When will it fail? It would be helpful to assess the accuracy of your predictions.

(2)(1)

Not Amused

That depends upon your definition of failure. The case brought on behalf of the BPTC student attempting to JR the BSB looks like a pretty bad failure to me. You’ve been very snippy today dear and not inclined to engage with substantive points. I grant that my style can grate sometimes but try to see me as charming, it makes life easier.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

Let the barristers have the work.

After all the regulatory crap, stupid hassle from clients over trivial nonsense, and the constant emails and telephone calls, they will stick to drafting and advocacy. Solicitors do grunt work and the bar will not want to get their hands dirty with it.

I still think we work best as Sols & Bazzas together, keeping to our traditional roles.

(2)(0)

Legal Weak

This all seems to point to the option for barristers to join law firms. The barristers, who are now partners, get the paperwork/litigation done by the solics and all the economic product of the shared work is distributed equitably.
(Chambers could also build solicitor teams – though it makes more sense for freelancers to join an LLP, than a group of freelancers to try and create a company of solicitors that it owns).
At present you have barristers trying to grow ‘a solicitor capability’ but remaining self employed at the same time.
It does seem that the two sides of the profession are just dancing around the elephant in the room: that the two need to fuse together properly now rather than trying to eat each other’s lunch.

(1)(1)

kris

Having been a Solicitor prior to coming to the practising Bar, I decided to get my litigation “ticket” from the BSB.

It would have to be quite an exceptional client and set of circumstances for me to conduct litigation – and I offer it only as a premium service. I have to agree w/Not Amused. I don’t think most barristers appreciate what it takes to have day to day conduct of a file.

Direct Access by its very nature is going to be limited to people who have the emotional, intellectual and organisational ability to run their own case. The reality is there is a reason why we hand our legal problems over to a litigator and it’s because litigation consumes LiPs lives.

Where DA does work is in short-fused cases, such as represent me in my motoring case down at the Mags – and in Civil piece-work, such as drafting pleadings – or, ideally, being briefed as an advocate.

Chambers and most sole practitioner barristers simply do not have the set up to run cases for more than one DA/Litigation client at a time.

Not Amused also has a point. It’s a rare DA approach indeed who hasn’t shot through a number of solicitors already – or who are simply looking for a “free consultation”. Even better are the, “I just have a quick question” merchants.

The barristers who thought they would re-invest the wheel, hire paralegals and compete with the high street seem to have fizzled out. There is a reason why.

(5)(0)

kris

NB

Doing a LiP’s list of documents?

Yikes.

(4)(0)

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