The barristers’ profession in England and Wales is subject to rules and regulations regarding the professional conduct and practice as prescribed by its regulator, the Bar Council. Where an individual believes they have received a substandard service from a barrister, they should communicate with the barrister and their clerk to try to resolve the problem.
If the issue cannot be resolved, a formal complaint may be made. If you wish to make a complaint about a barrister, the complaints process will depend on when the barrister’s conduct took place, because of a change in the barristers’ code of conduct. If you have a complaint relating to the conduct of a barrister before 6 January 2014 the eighth Code of Conduct applies. Otherwise, the Bar Council Handbook (which superseded the Code of Conduct) applies. This article assumes that your complaint relates to conduct after 6 January 2014.
How to complain about your own barrister’s conduct
If you need to make a complaint about a barrister who is acting for you, you should make your complaint directly to the Legal Ombudsman. If you want to complain about a barrister who is acting for someone else, the complaint should instead be taken directly to the Bar Standards Board (BSB) (see below).
The Legal Ombudsman is independent of the Bar (and the other regulators of the legal profession) and deals with complaints about all types of lawyers in England and Wales. To make a complaint, you will need to complete a questionnaire online or download it and email it to the Legal Ombudsman, along with your personal information and documents necessary to your complaint.
It will then investigate your complaint in an independent and fair way, and make its decision on whether or not the service you received was satisfactory.
What remedies are available?
If the Legal Ombudsman decides that your barrister provided an unsatisfactory service, you can be compensated, and the barrister could be ordered to carry out work to put the matter right. It can also consider whether the barrister’s fees should be reduced and whether an apology should be given.
The Legal Ombudsman cannot take disciplinary action against the barrister – professional conduct issues are for the BSB to investigate if appropriate.
Where your complaint concerns a barrister not acting for you
If you are making a complaint about a barrister who is not acting for you, you should contact the BSB – within 12 months of the issue arising if possible. A complaints form (available from the BSB) will need to be completed and this service is free. Your complaint will be carefully assessed and the BSB will then consider whether there are good reasons to take action, but firm evidence will be required before it decides whether to carry out a formal investigation or take other action.
If the BSB decides not to investigate, it will give you its reasons for its decision. It may be that the BSB recommends you refer the complaint to the barrister’s chambers itself, so that the complaint can be investigated ‘inhouse’ under its complaints procedure. If that is the route taken but you remain unhappy with the outcome, it is open to you to bring the complaint back to the BSB.
If the BSB does decide to investigate, it will contact the barrister and any other relevant people for their comments and relevant documents. It may send you the barrister’s response. Complaints can take up to six months to complete if an investigation takes place.
If the BSB decides that the barrister has breached their professional duties, it can issue a fine of up to £1,000, a warning, or closer supervision of the barrister concerned. However, unlike the Legal Ombudsman, the barrister cannot be ordered to pay compensation.
In serious cases, the BSB is very likely to refer the barrister to an independent disciplinary tribunal.
What is the disciplinary tribunal?
Disciplinary tribunals are arranged by the Bar Tribunals and Adjudication Service (BTAS) which is an independent organisation. It can take a few months to arrange a disciplinary tribunal, but they typically take place within 12 months of BTAS receiving the complaint.
Disciplinary tribunals are made up of either three or five people including barristers and lay members. Whether the alleged complaint will be heard by a three or five-member panel depends on the seriousness of the alleged breach/es.
There are four stages to the disciplinary tribunal process:
- Stage 1 − letting people know the charges and giving them the bundle of supporting documents
- Stage 2 − agreeing the timetable for the case
- Stage 3 − agreeing the date for the disciplinary tribunal hearing
- Stage 4 − the hearing itself
If the tribunal makes a finding against the barrister, the tribunal has a range of penalties at its disposal and can impose any or all the following:
- take no further action (ie, no sanction will be given)
- 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)
In addition to the above sanctions, a five-person panel can also:
- suspend the barrister, or
- disbar/disqualify them
However, a tribunal cannot order the barrister to pay compensation.