Friday, December 09, 2011

In Practice: Is it time to talk about fusion again?

Two stories in the Gazette grabbed my attention over the last week. First, we had the eye-catching headline last Friday: Bar aiming to bypass ‘superfluous’ solicitors and this was followed on Tuesday by Barristers plan escrow scheme for holding client money.

A little explanation. The first story informs us that the Bar Standards Board is examining whether barristers should be able to accept direct instructions from clients eligible for public funding. In a consultation paper it says that:
"The purpose of allowing lay clients to instruct barristers directly is to remove unnecessary barriers to the provision of barristers’ services and to save costs by cutting out superfluous intermediaries."
Sounds all very noble, but such a change would also of course have the effect of increasing business for barristers in hard economic times. A problem, however, that barristers have when it comes to taking business from solicitors is that they are not, of course, allowed to handle client money. Well, the second story tells us that the Bar is working on a solution. Incoming Chairman Michael Todd QC has said in a speech that he is chairing a working group led by the Bar Council’s member services team to examine the feasibility of a service that would provide entities regulated by the Bar Standards Board and public access barristers with an escrow account facility in which client monies could be placed.

I'm not going to make any comment upon whether these developments represent a serious threat to solicitors, but if barriers are going to be broken down, then why not go the whole hog and fuse the profession? That would certainly be a lot simpler (and less confusing) for the public.

Early in my career there used to be quite a debate about fusion, but that largely subsided after solicitors were given greater rights of audience and direct access to barristers was allowed. Is it time to revisit that debate, particularly given the present economic situation? After all, the reduced cost of only having to instruct one lawyer was always one of the biggest arguments in favour of fusion. Also, with more lawyers on both sides dealing with cases from start to finish the lack of a 'second opinion' (i.e. from a barrister), one of the alleged disadvantages of fusion, is becoming more and more irrelevant.

Just a thought.

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