The Council of the Inns of Court (COIC), the body which oversees disciplinary cases for the Bar, has delivered its Final Report into the Bar’s disciplinary regime.  The 47 page report, published on Friday 27 July, sets out the “root and branch” analysis and recommendations of a Review Group chaired by Desmond Browne QC, convened on 23 November 2011.

The conclusion is one of “systemic failures” in the administration of the Tribunals Service in its inability to come up to scratch as measured against those buzz words of modern regulation: fairness, transparency and efficiency.  The foreword to the Report explains that the “need for reform was so great that [the Group] quickly changed from a Review Group into what was effectively an implementation Group to ensure that the Disciplinary Tribunals system could continue to operate”.  We are all familiar with the concept of the Solicitors Regulation Authority staging “interventions” into a practise: this appears to be what took place by the Review Group, albeit with the boot on the other foot. 

A large part of the Report is devoted to counting the ways in which disciplinary panels had been sitting with ineligible members by reason of, variously: their membership of other committees such as the Bar Council or other Bar Standards Board committees (on the issue of conflict and apparent bias in a similar situation see e-Regulator case summary here);  panellists who were unregistered or non-practising, barrister panel members of insufficient call and barrister and lay panel members who held  tenure when their original appointment had expired and who had not been reappointed. Also of note and indicative of the parlous state of affairs (if not having any bearing on the legitimacy of a disciplinary finding), in a review of the tribunal clerks, where five years call and independent practise was a required qualification, the review discovered a clerk who had not even completed pupillage.

What particularly struck me in reading the report was the portrayal of operations to date, in particular the role and working conditions of the Tribunal Secretary.  Reading between the lines and I confess, employing a little artistic licence, I have an image of an unfortunate and beleaguered Secretary, all but keeping the whole creaking show on the road.  To add to the Dickensian image I envisage towers of looseleaf papers and hand written ledgers crammed into what is described as a “small” office within Quadrant Chambers on Fleet Street.   The Report specifically mentions the absence of what one expects as the hallmarks of a professional service: suitable IT provision (not to speak of a dedicated case management system), supervision or other management for said Secretary, pro formas, standard operating procedure manuals or publicly available written information for service users.   The want of what I might loosely term “systems” even frustrated the Review Group in its task to the extent that “the extraction of vital information was often very difficult, invariably time-consuming and sometimes quite impossible”. 

What next?  There are 82 recommendations, available in summary form at Annex 15 of the report here.  The Report recommends the creation of a new COIC Tribunals Service and Tribunals Appointments Body.  The new Service will allow for a clear separation of the Bar’s adjudicatory from its regulatory function and is very much in keeping with the pull of the tide, as evidenced recently in the hiving off of the GMC’s adjudication to its new tribunal service (see our blog entry of 18 June 2012). In addition, there is a recommendation for the sourcing of dedicated, purpose built premis es to house the new Service.  Desmond Browne QC went into some detail at paragraph 31.4 of the Report on the precise “facilities” to be expected.

Good news too for the Tribunal Secretary who can expect a little more support.  The Report recommends the hiring of a senior member of staff, ideally with relevant experience of running a tribunal service, to preside over a larger workforce of properly recruited, managed and appraised personnel.  This blog recently commented on a high level vacancy at the NMC so regardless of gloomy reports of the employment market more generally, this particular area of recruitment seems to be enjoying some vibrancy. 

Taking the hoped for implementation of these recommendations together, they should deliver the transparency and accountability expected of the Bar’s disciplinary regime.  The public are very much aware that barristers occupy high profile roles in helping to examine the standards of other professions -  take Robert Jay QC’s role in the Leveson Inquiry for example -  therefore the impression given in the Report of the Bar’s own shambolic disciplinary provision is no doubt a matter that the profession as a whole will be keen to correct as swiftly as possible.