Why has the Bar Standards Board issued new guidance telling barristers to speak clearly and understand the law?

We spoke to the regulator about its new youth court competences handbook

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has recently released new guidance for criminal law barristers appearing in youth courts, and at first reading it seems a bit flimsy.

“Barristers should have knowledge and understanding of the key concepts of criminal and youth justice law and procedure” and should “speak in a clear and concise manner” are just two of the competences which feature in the 15-page handbook. Shouldn’t barristers know this stuff already?

“You might think so,” says Oliver Hanmer, the BSB’s director of regulatory assurance. “But our research has shown that these competences are not always put into practice.”

The new handbook has been born out of research by the BSB into barristers in the youth court.

Commissioned in 2014 and published in 2015, the research flagged up a number of concerns. For one, it showed barristers were often appearing in youth court proceedings with no specific training in this area (while training is available, it is not compulsory and is paid for out of the barrister’s own pocket). It demonstrated that some barristers were not aware that they were to address their client by their first name, not their surname as is the case in the adult courts. When the magistrate corrects this, the young client’s confidence in their representative is totally undermined.

BSB’s infographic

But that wasn’t the biggest failing. Crucial to a successful client/advocate relationship is effective communication and engagement. While stressing the importance of adopting clear English may seem obvious, it’s fundamental.

The failings may boil down to the way youth court proceedings are perceived by those working at them. The youth courts are often, and wrongly, being viewed as a practice run for barristers, with chambers dishing out this sort of work to pupils and junior barristers. When asked why this is the case, Hanmer struggled to give us an answer.

“The value side of it is an important factor”, he tells us. “The money you earn in the youth court is half of what you’d earn in an adult court, even if the offences are the same.”

It’s a stark reality: a barrister drafted in to defend someone accused of GBH would be paid twice as much for a 22-year-old client compared to a 16-year-old client. This is the case even though the issues faced by the advocate are often “more challenging” and “more complex” in youth court cases than those dealt with in the magistrates’ and crown courts. Not only are clients more vulnerable, the barrister can often find themselves unpicking through gang-related issues, family matters and other complex factors. A practice round it is not.

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising the research showed standards of advocacy were, in Hanmer’s words, “variable”. He continues:

The quality of service simply wasn’t there and, because of this, we had to step in introduce regulation specific to this area.

Alongside communication and engagement skills and a knowledge of the law, the handbook also notes barristers should have a good knowledge of local organisations relevant to youth justice, understand the additional vulnerabilities faced by young people in the criminal justice system and take reasonable steps to be alert to young person’s needs. The full document can be viewed here.

These competences are not standards of excellence, but minimum standards expected of all advocates appearing in the youth court. If a barrister is found to be incompetent, the regulator will step in and, if necessary, take relevant disciplinary action.

In its short life — it was published on 24 February — the handbook has come under some criticism.

Some practitioners think introducing specific regulation in this area was not a good move on the BSB’s part because it’s a narrow practice area and therefore has a narrow reach. Hanmer issues a passionate rebuttal against this:

In my view this is exactly the kind of territory we should be in as a regulator. The impact of poor quality advocacy in the youth court is grave and the risks are too great to ignore.

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34 Comments

Anonymous

Oh come on!

Have the censors had a sense of humour transplant today?

Those postings were genuinely funny teen speak and not offensive at all!

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Anonymous

That’s because the barristers are all oxbridge posh educated tossers who study jurisprudence. They don’t know how to apply the law. I’ve seen it in practice, oxbridge barristers and judges not knowing the simple elements of criminal law such as Summary only and indictable offences

(5)(13)
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Anonymous

Are you saying that it’s impossible to practise law with a desmond? I know a few people with thirds who are doing particularly well. Mind you, they did go to proper universities at least.

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Anonymous at 10:01 is wrong

(i) Jurisprudence is just the name of the degree. Although you study legal philosophy for one Finals paper, the focus is very much on analysing doctrinal law. The exams require answering problem questions, and you absolutely do need to know how to apply the law.

(ii) If you’re counsel appearing before a judge, who may not have practised criminal law while at the Bar, isn’t it your job to explain the difference?

(iii) I’d struggle to believe that any criminal barrister (whether Oxbridge or not) wouldn’t know the difference between summary and indictable offences. If a barrister (again, Oxbridge or not) didn’t practise criminal law, then why would they? It’s not like it’s integral to a commercial practice…

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Posh Oxbridge Tosser

If Dennis the Menace appears b4 the yute court I shall refer to him as Master Menace. To first name him would be discourteous and in conflict with BSB ethics

(1)(0)
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Minniver

I wouldn’t, as “Menace” is an outdated 1950s label that society attached to Dennis in order to demonise him for his behavioural issues, not Dennis’ surname.

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snowball

how much did the BSB spend on this “research”, lets all state the obvious. I have not read it all but does it anywhere comment on the fact that as youth court work is generally funded by legal aid as mags court work I would be expected to do a first appearance for £45 and a one day trial for less than £200 to include all prep work, conference and my travel costs – the end result of the poor remuneration is that the youth court is the domain of pupils and the most junior tenants. Fund it properly so experienced barristers with a few years experience can afford to do this work and standards would dramatically improve.

(6)(1)
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Anonymous

You aren’t confusing the BSB with the MoJ. The BSB can’t increase funding, it can only raise minimum standards in a bid to prevent incompetence.

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Not Amused

Any question asked about why the BSB does anything which does not simply conclude “because the BSB is incompetent” is a waste of time.

(5)(2)
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Oxbridge Tosser

A statistical analysis of LC deletions show an intolerance for:

1. Any humour beyond potty mouth humour.

2. any anti feminist comment.

3. any blasphemy against Amal Cloony

4. Rastafarianism

5. the legal profession

(2)(0)
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Anonymous

Might I just point out that the definition of feminism is the belief in equality for the two sexes. So when you say “anti-feminist”, the word you are looking for is “sexist”.

(7)(5)
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Anonymous

When did the memo go round setting out that definition? And who made you the definition boss? There are all sorts of ways feminism could be defined depending on the outlook of the feminist in question. Some radical adherents who would describe themselves as feminists seek solutions that are far from advocating equality between the sexes. Not saying they’re right or wrong, just saying they exist.

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Anonymous

I’m not the definition boss, may I suggest you try any dictionary. Radical feminism is different – that’s why it has a different name.

I bet you’ve spent all day asking when International Men’s Day is.

(3)(2)
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Rupert B

Oop North, apart from Trials, we seldom see a Barrister in the Youth Court. All the knockabout stuff, apart from Trials, is invariably prosecuted by unqualified Associate Prosecutors – and, they’re good at it.

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Anonymous

Youth Court work has many differences, which is why it has seperate chapters in Criminal Litigation and Sentencing and the mag court handbook.

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