Confusing rules governing use of ‘barrister’ title produce their most absurd result yet
It’s illegal to call yourself a barrister when you’ve never been called to the Bar, but a lack of appetite for enforcing the law means it’s possible to do so and avoid sanction.
This story doesn’t distil neatly into a single catchy opening sentence. But the tale of Bar graduate and Tory councillor Monika Juneja and her right — or otherwise — to call herself a barrister is an extraordinary one. So let’s start from the beginning.
In 2001, Juneja enrolled as a student member of Gray’s Inn, before going on to apparently gain a “Competent” on the Bar Vocational Course (now the Bar Professional Training Course). Unlike most graduates of the course, she was not called to the Bar, and having not secured a pupillage she proceeded to work, amongst other things, as what she termed a “locum lawyer”.
Ten years later Juneja was elected as Guildford Borough Councillor for Burpham. On her Register of Members Disclosable Interests she listed herself as a barrister, as well as on other documents.
Four months ago getSurrey ran a story pointing out that Juneja had used the title of “barrister” despite not being called to the Bar. In response, Guildford Borough Council (GBC) commissioned an independent investigation into the matter. The individual conducting the investigation proceeded to contact the Bar Council to find out the rules governing such things. It has since emerged that the very junior member of the Bar Council’s staff who replied got their advice completely wrong.
The Bar Council’s statement to the investigation — which can be viewed in full here — claims: “It is not an offence to simply call yourself a barrister in this country even if not called to the Bar of England and Wales” as long as it’s not in connection with the provision of legal services.
Section 181 of the Legal Services Act states otherwise:
S181 Unqualified person not to pretend to be a barrister
(1) It is an offence for a person who is not a barrister—
(a) wilfully to pretend to be a barrister, or
(b) with the intention of implying falsely that that person is a barrister to take or use any name, title or description.
Relying on the Bar Council’s advice, the investigation completely exonerated Juneja from any wrong-doing.
Having read the investigation and spotted the error, we contacted the Bar Council, which after a brief investigation of its own issued this statement:
“Responding to an enquiry, a junior member of staff in our Records Office volunteered the information that it was not a criminal offence for an unqualified person to call themselves a barrister. This is not correct, we apologise for that mistake and we have since clarified this matter with the enquirer. We are currently looking into the details of this error and taking steps to ensure that it does not happen again.”
The matter was then transferred to the Bar Standards Board (BSB), which penned a rather embarrassed letter to GBC, offering its apologies for the Bar Council’s error before proceeding to state that “it will be clear that there are implications for the investigation report.” Those “implications”, the BSB added, “are of course a matter for you.” The letter can be viewed here.
A quick scan of the GBC investigation report — which can be viewed in full here — reveals how heavily it is based on that erroneous Bar Council email. Amongst other things it states:
“…on the basis that use of the word Barrister to describe employment when not holding out to undertake reserved legal activities is not an offence and the General Bar Council accept that the word Barrister may be used by anyone there is nothing further to comment on. It is clear to me that the Councillor has done nothing wrong in the office she holds and my overall conclusion is that this specific matter may be closed.”
Elsewhere the report states:
“…there is nothing wrong for anyone to say they are a barrister when they are not admitted to the Bar. Whilst this may and does appear strange to a reasonable man in the street who would think they are a practising barrister there is nothing wrong unless and until someone who describes them self as such does so with intent to undertake reserved legal activities.”
So, did GBC commission a new report? Er, no.
At the end of last week GBC provided Legal Cheek with this statement:
“Following the investigation into complaints against Cllr Monika Juneja, there has been further contact with the Bar Standards Board. We passed this information to the independent person conducting the investigation and no changes have been made to the report conclusions. The matter remains closed.”
We passed this onto the Bar Council, which referred us to the BSB, which declined to elaborate on this previously-issued statement:
“An individual needs to have been called to the Bar to use the title ‘barrister’. If an individual has not been called to the Bar, they are not a barrister and so would not come within our regulatory remit.”
Finally, we contacted Juneja herself, who indicated that she had understood it was OK for Bar graduates to use the barrister title in limited circumstances — as it had been before the section of Legal Services Act mentioned above was implemented in 2010. Indeed, Juneja would still be able to call herself a barrister if she had been called to the Bar, as she was eligible to be upon completion of the Bar Vocational Course in 2001.
Juneja added that now, 13 years after finishing her Bar training, she was looking into being called to the Bar as a way to ensure she isn’t held to have breached any rules. Finally, she asked whether it would be fair to expect her to understand the rules when the Bar Council itself had got things so wrong in the advice it gave to the investigation.
The moral of this story? That the rules governing use of the ‘barrister’ title are a mess. Just look at all these ridiculous stories of non-practising barristers up to no good that frequently grace Legal Cheek.
Award the title of barrister upon completion of pupillage rather than on “call to the Bar” and none of this would happen. But how would providers of the Bar Professional Training Course, which make good money effectively selling the title of “barrister” to students who have low chances of gaining a pupillage, feel about that?