Businesses are failing to take advantage of regulations which were widened two years ago allowing direct access to barristers for legal advice and representation.
Birmingham barrister Mark Jackson believes the region’s business community is losing out financially as a result of sticking to the traditional practice of approaching a solicitor in the first instance.
One of the many changes to affect the regulation of the legal profession in recent years, direct access has seen barristers able to advertise their services for the first time rather than awaiting instruction from a solicitor.
“Until a couple of years ago anyone who wanted to go to a barrister had to instruct a solicitor,” said Mr Jackson, who was recently appointed head of chambers at No 8 Chambers.
“Businesses would go to a solicitor, a solicitor would charge a fee and if they thought it was appropriate they would instruct a barrister to advise them or represent them in court. They ended up paying twice effectively.
“Now you can instruct a barrister directly, which means you cut out the need for a solicitor. What businesses often need is some advice and representation when it goes to court and can get all of that from us and get it much cheaper. They don’t need two people to do it for them and in his climate it’s all about saving money.”
Mr Jackson likens the situation to getting a referral from a GP to see a specialist, saying if people were paying for that they would not put up with a system operating along similar lines.
“You get free healthcare in this country,” he said. “If we didn’t, would you pay a GP to send you to a consultant or would you just pay the consultant?”
A range of businesses could benefit from direct access, but Mr Jackson said a prime example would be a restaurant which fell foul of the law or any matters relating to licensing and trading standards.
“Regulatory work is particularly well suited,” he said. “Say if you have a restaurant that has been in trouble because it has cockroaches running around or has a mice problem and may be taken to court.”
In a bid to boost opportunities offered by direct access, No 8 Chambers has also embarked on a drive to target the road haulage industry directly with its newly-launched Road Haulage Barristers brand.
Mr Jackson also said they were keen to counter widely held assumptions that barristers are “always expensive”, adding that under the traditional system clients might not even know how much they are paying for a barrister’s services.
“They have no idea how much a barrister is – whether they are getting value for money,” he said.
The president of Birmingham Law Society, the only law society in the UK that has barristers as well as solicitors as members, believes there is room for both to continue to work together.
Andrew Lancaster said: “We believe there is a place for direct access to barristers but we do firmly believe that there are different skills sets between barristers and solicitors.
“We recognise that we are one profession with different strengths and very much want to present a united front in the way we develop to ensure clients’ needs are met. What actually joins us together is that we are looking for ways to support each other in providing first-class legal services to our clients. – both the business community and individual clients.”
Mr Lancaster added that solicitors already compete with each other and believes barristers also competing should not pose a problem.
“The legal market is changing fast,” he said. “As the legal sector develops there is increasing co-operation between barristers and solicitors and we are consequently looking at new approaches, new models and new structures in order to provide legal services in an efficient and professional way.
“It may well be the case where an individual client or a small business that has a small claim in court that it would be more cost-effective for them to prepare the case themselves and instruct directly a barrister to represent them.
“But barristers can’t hold clients’ money and are therefore restricted to the extent they can represent clients directly. They can only charge fees for representing them in court or for advice sometimes required.
“We can see that there is an opportunity for the public to directly consult barristers from time to time but we feel that these opportunities will be limited.”