Barristers in England and Wales are expected to practice in accordance with a professional code of conduct. The barristers Code of Conduct is contained within the Bar Standards Board (BSB) Handbook for Barristers.
What is the BSB Handbook?
The BSB Handbook is the key regulatory tool through which the BSB ensures that the effective administration of justice is served through practicing barristers. Barristers are central to the justice system, and clients depend upon their independence and ability to present their cases fearlessly and effectively. They also expect a high standard of professional service.
As far as consumers are concerned, the Handbook as a whole enables consumers to understand what they can expect from barristers, clarifies the regulatory regime with which they must comply, and ensures clients receive the right level of protection and service from their barrister.
What’s the nature of the Code of Conduct?
The Code (now in its 3rd edition) sets out the rules and standards that should inform all aspects of a barrister’s practice, whether they are employed in-house or are self-employed barristers in chambers. This means all practicing barristers are subject to the provisions of the Code and must carry out their professional and ethical duties in accordance with it.
The provisions of the Code underpin important values including the achievement of justice, establishment of respect of law and procedure, safeguarding the client’s autonomy and providing for confidentiality and honesty. This is why compliance with the Code is vital. Breaches undermine public trust in the profession and it can take a long time for faith in lawyers to be restored.
There is also separate guidance relating to what a barrister must do under the Code of Conduct, and the rules they must comply with when practicing as a barrister. However, it is important to note that the requirements of the Code are not statutory but are professional guidelines.
What does the Code of Conduct contain?
The Code sets out ten ‘core duties’, and the rules which supplement those Core Duties. Compliance with both the core duties and the rules is mandatory. It also explains the outcomes which compliance with the core duties and the rules is designed to achieve.
The ten Core Duties
The core duties (CD) are:
- CD1 You must observe your duty to the court in the administration of justice
- CD2 You must act in the best interests of each client
- CD3 You must act with honesty and integrity
- CD4 You must maintain your independence
- CD5 You must not behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in you or in the profession
- CD6 You must keep the affairs of each client confidential
- CD7 You must provide a competent standard of work and service to each client
- CD8 You must not discriminate unlawfully against any person
- CD9 You must be open and co-operative with your regulators
- CD10 You must take reasonable steps to manage your practice, or carry out your role within your practice, competently and in such a way as to achieve compliance with your legal and regulatory obligations
The Conduct Rules
The Code also sets out the Conduct Rules which explain the duties of a barrister in relation to their clients, the courts and tribunals, the regulator, their legal practice – and ethical issues and requirements.
What happens if the Code is breached?
If a barrister breaches the Code, action can be taken. An individual seeking to complain about a barrister’s conduct can complain directly to the BSB, which will investigate the complaint. If the BSB finds there is sufficient evidence that the barrister breached the Code, it can decide what action take. Depending on the breach, this could be a warning or a fine of up to £1,000.
In serious cases, disciplinary action may be taken. The matter would then be referred to an independent disciplinary tribunal who will make a final decision on whether the barrister has failed to comply with the Handbook and, if so, what action should be taken. This process can take a year or more, depending on the nature and complexity of the matter.
Once it has reached its conclusion, the tribunal can impose any or the following (including a combination) on the barrister:
- take no further action (impose no sanction)
- give advice
- give a warning about their behaviour
- make them complete further professional development training
- a fine of up to £50,000
- ban them from carrying out public access work (accepting work directly from members of the public without the involvement of a solicitor)
- suspend them for any period of time, or
- disbar/disqualify them
Note that the tribunal cannot order compensation to be paid to the person who made a complaint.
All findings of professional misconduct are published on the Bar Standards Board website and by the Inns of Court.