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Direct access in spotlight after barrister is slapped with 11 misconduct findings

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Immigration specialist vows to appeal ruling, which came after he had been named and shamed by ombudsman at the end of last year

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The story of Tariq Rehman — co-head of Birmingham’s Kings Court Chambers — will bring wry smiles to solicitors feeling uncomfortable with the growing competition from direct access barristers.

The regulator’s disciplinary panel has given immigration law specialist Rehman a significant ticking off after the Legal Ombudsman last December made him the first named-and-shamed barrister for generating a high volume of public complaints.

Rehman’s case was the eighth prosecuted by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) over the last three years involving public access barristers. Whether that is seen as a trickle or the beginning of a flood will clearly depend on which side of the public access divide a lawyer sits.

Last week, the BSB published the tribunal’s 5 May decision in Rehman’s hearing. It found there had been no fewer than 11 misconduct offences. Most involved a lack of clarity around fees and failing properly to inform clients of which lawyer would be dealing with a specific case.

Other disciplinary findings over the last three years have involved direct access barristers failing to keep clients informed in writing of developments relating to their matters. In other words, basic cock-ups around functions that solicitors maintain they rattle through as a matter or course.

The BSB ruffled solicitor feathers about 18 months ago when it reformed the direct access rules, allowing barristers with less than three years’ experience to take instructions directly from the public.

At the time, the BSB said that all barristers had to do before being unleashed on the masses was complete 12 hours of training and then promise to keep a log of their cases, in which they were meant to register any problems encountered.

At the time, the Law Gazette reported on the Law Society’s then-president, Nicholas Fluck, sounding warning bells.

“Clients may find that barristers do not have the support systems or the resources to give the full service that solicitors can provide,” warned Fluck, adding:

If clients see a solicitor who has been qualified for less than three years, that solicitor will be a member of a firm and supervised by a more senior solicitor who can step in immediately if needed, rather than wait for action by the regulator after the event.

However, the complaints and disciplinary findings around direct access do not for the most part involve junior barristers. Indeed, of the eight panel findings, the most junior barrister involved was called in 2008. The others had at least 10 years’ call.

As far as Rahmen is concerned, he told the Law Gazette last week that he would appeal the panel ruling.

We adopted a different model that nobody else was using,” he maintained, before lashing out at the profession’s authorities. “The Bar Council, rather than assisting and acknowledging that barristers have to change the way they operate, came in with a heavy hand.

The BSB panel’s sentence in the Rahmen case has been deferred pending the appeal. The Bar Council declined to comment on the Rahmen case or more generally on issues around direct access barristers’ service failures.