Earlier this year, the Bar Council gave its backing to a new website which had been set up by two barristers with the very simple aim of providing an online directory of Direct Access barristers to the public – the Direct Access Portal (DAP).
We joined forces with barristers Pru Beever and Mike Whyatt of the Northern Circuit to make this the “go-to” website for individuals and businesses looking for a barrister. Historically, members of the public and businesses have had to go through a solicitor in order to use the services of a barrister. However, since major changes to the rules in 2010 clients can now go directly to a barrister.
Barristers are taking top up training to continue to be able to take instructions directly from clients. Once that is complete, we predict that 4,000 barristers will be fully qualified to do direct access work, about a quarter of the whole Bar.
A new hub
The portal has replaced the Bar Council’s direct access register as the main hub for consumers seeking to find a direct access barrister. It is easy to use both for the public and for the members of the Bar who want to sign up to the DAP. The portal is free for consumers to use and there is no log-in or subscription involved.
Barristers who pay the £100 voluntary Bar Representation Fee (BRF) to the Bar Council will be able to appear in this national directory free of charge. The BRF provides a whole range of benefits to Barristers in addition to the DAP, as well as funding much of the representative work of the Bar Council. It goes a long way.
One of the challenges we faced at the Bar Council was to ensure that all those who had paid their BRF were successfully placed on the new DAP. We worked with the team at Fat Media, who created the website for the founders, to make that happen. It is of course still open to those who haven’t yet signed up to do so and secure their place on the DAP.
The advanced search facility on the site includes 77 specialisms to search from, including some very niche ones – equine law and Nigerian law, for example. If a website user in need of a barrister’s services is unsure of what specialism they need, there are four broader search fields to pick from; civil, criminal, family and international. Barristers have the option of listing more than one specialism.
We encourage barristers who register to provide as much relevant information as possible. They can keep their public profile up to date via their individual professional profile page, which provides the option of including a photograph. The DAP also gives barristers the option of specifying the distance they are prepared to travel to meet or represent a client. Clerks can have a separate login facility for the Direct Access barristers in their chambers and can, through their log in, update profiles and monitor any enquiries if required. Barristers who are also qualified mediators and/or arbitrators can have a separate profile page for these specialisms using the same login details.
The benefits of Direct Access
We need to do more to help the public and businesses see the benefits of Direct Access. Providing the DAP portal is just the first step. Now that this is up and running, we need to ensure greater understanding of how Direct Access works, when it might be appropriate to use a Direct Access barrister and the potential money-saving advantages. We also need to ensure that potential users of the DAP know that not all barristers do this kind of work, and that for some, a solicitor might be more appropriate.
These are early days for the portal and we will be monitoring its progress to see where any improvements can be made. Our priorities now are accessibility and ease of use. A key audience will be the small and medium sized business, or SME, community, many of whom often need legal support and won’t have in-house counsel to support them. Feedback from SME owners on using Direct Access barristers has been positive, as these videos show. We need to reach more SMEs and can’t simply rely on word of mouth. We hope that the portal will become one of the first places SMEs go to when they need a lawyer.
The portal’s ease of use makes particularly well suited to the international client market. Direct access is already used in international work. Many overseas clients are now using direct access barristers and the Bar Council escrow account, BARCO, to cut down the costs of litigation. The portal already allows those seeking a barrister to narrow their search by five different international advanced search choices, including International Arbitration, International Human rights and International Administrative. There is little to stop an overseas client using the portal now to find a barrister in England & Wales.
The DAP is intended to offer clients greater choice and value for money. It is not simply or indeed mainly about competition with solicitors. The two branches of the profession work extremely well together on a wide range of matters and will continue to do so. In some cases, the barrister will advise the client that a solicitor also needs to be engaged and all barristers qualified to carry out direct access work are under a duty, before they take on the case and at all times after that, to advise clients to engage a solicitor if that is necessary for the proper conduct of their case. In addition, direct access barristers refer work to solicitors where the subject matter is more appropriate for them.
Direct access is one way that barristers are adapting to the evolving legal market, to serve their clients and the public interest better. The Bar Council wants to help barristers to take advantage of opportunities to compete, because competition is good for clients and good for justice. The portal is designed to make that easier for both the client or potential client and the barristers who use the DAP to secure new business.
Stephen Crowne is Chief Executive of the Bar Council, having joined in 2013. Formerly he had leading roles at Cisco, BECTA and the Department for Education. Twitter @thebarcouncil.