Bogus ‘boutique barrister’ puts regulator in spotlight over non-practising status

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By Judge John Hack on

Bar Standards Board defends its position as pupillage-less bar graduate is jailed for fraud after using “barrister” title


Regulators were in the spotlight today over the continuing grey area around non-practising barristers after a fraudster was convicted of hoodwinking thousands of pounds from the families of special needs children.

David Abbott was sentenced yesterday at Lewes Crown Court to a prison term of two years and three months for fraudulently maintaining he was a fully-qualified barrister.

The 50-year-old was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in November 2008, but he never obtained pupillage and was therefore not fully qualified.

However, the court heard that he repeatedly held himself out as being qualified, despite having been disbarred by a Bar Standards Board (BSB) disciplinary tribunal in 2011.

In the criminal trial, Abbott was convicted of swindling families of special needs children out of thousands of pounds after claiming to be a “boutique barrister” specialising in education tribunal cases.

His conviction and jailing will reignite calls for the BSB and the Bar Council to tighten the rules on barrister qualification. Currently, a nebulous period exists between call and full qualification and then practice rights. The latter can only be achieved after the completion of a year’s pupillage.

There have long been suggestions that providers of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) lobby the BSB and council to maintain the status quo. The rationale being that the providers do not want the BPTC to fall into the same position as the Legal Practice Course (LPC) for solicitors.

That course provides no practical advantage to students unless they obtain a training contract and qualify as solicitors. In other words, LPC graduates cannot describe themselves as non-practising solicitors.

Critics of the non-practising barrister status will leap on the Abbott case as a prime example of how the current system can be abused to the detriment of the wider bar’s reputation.

On 22 March 2011, a disciplinary tribunal disbarred Abbott following was string of offences. The tribunal found that Abbott had signed letters as “barrister at law” and had held himself out as being fully qualified in several other ways.

According to the tribunal finding, Abbott’s conduct at the time was “likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute …”

Two years before disbarment, Abbott boasted on Twitter — where his handle was “LegalDavid” — that he had received his first judicial review instructions. “I’m going to be heard in the RCJ,” he wrote. “Anyone want to watch?”

A spokesperson for the BSB told Legal Cheek:

The question of when, in the qualification process, someone can use the term ‘barrister’ has been subject to much debate, by various bodies, for decades and we know it still divides opinion. When the BSB was established in 2006 one of our first priorities was to consider the issue ourselves. Following an open and broad consultation and an independent survey, the Board decided that not deferring the point of being Called to the Bar would reduce the risk of members of the public being confused about the status of barristers who are undertaking pupillage. The BSB’s view is that this lack of clarity would not be in the best interests of the public.”

Read the findings of the tribunal in full below:

David Abbott