Thursday, 21 January 2016

Moving Out

I have nothing against London. I love visiting London. Some of my best friends live there. 1

But location does not confer merit.

As with most other spheres of life in this country, the heart of our legal system lies in London. It is home to virtually every major legal institution. Naturally it is a magnet for able lawyers and legal firms.

Contrary to some beliefs, however, legal life also exists outside the capital city.

In fact most legal activity occurs outside London. A 2014 report supported by the Bar Council, the Law Society and the government, found that the legal services industry employs 315,000 workers of whom 103,000 are in London (32.6%). Gross value added by the industry was £20.4bn of which London was responsible for £6bn (29.4%). Over 70% of the gross value added by legal services in UK was generated outside London by over two-thirds of workers employed in legal services.

Of course there are many national firms of solicitors. There are firms in Manchester with clients in London, and vice versa. Barristers in London sets spend time on circuit, and provincial barristers regularly travel to the London courts, some having second tenancies at London sets. It is not possible to draw neat geographical lines around the provision of legal services. But the evidence shows that it is "the regions" not London that generate most of the legal services income in this country.

The bar is not set lower for lawyers entering the profession outside London. It is neither easier nor harder to obtain a pupillage at my chambers (based in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham) than it is at most London sets. We are not the poor relations of our London cousins.

The Bar is perhaps even more London-centred than the legal profession as a whole. This is in part for historical reasons- the four Inns of Court are located there. And barristers naturally wish to locate near the main courts, including the appellate courts. Nevertheless the Bar has a substantial presence outside London. The Bar Barometer for 2012 found that one in three barristers were members of circuits other than the South East Circuit (the circuit for most London practitioners).  Indeed, to my surprise, the report found that there were more chambers outside London (399) than in London (369).

Understandable though it is that there should be a focus on legal London, perhaps there is something of an imbalance. Whilst over two thirds of legal service providers are in the regions, the Royal Courts of Justice, the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, the employment appeal tribunal, the Bar Council, the Law Society and many other legal institutions are all based in the capital.

Unfortunately this imbalance has become entrenched and affects attitudes and behaviour.

Many barristers seek to do government civil work. They compete to be appointed to the  Attorney-General's panel of counsel in order to be entitled to receive instructions from government departments. There are three London panels, A, B and C, and there is a separate regional panel with no such gradations. The London A panel is reserved for senior juniors who are allocated "the most complex government cases". A colleague was once told that he had to have a London chambers address to be considered for the A panel.

Approximately 10% of barristers in England and Wales practise on the Northern Circuit according to the Bar Barometer. This month 107 new silks were appointed. Three were from the Northern Circuit (2.8%). That is half of the number appointed from a single chambers in London. In 2015 there were 3 out of 93 (3.2%). The published records of the diversity of applicants and those appointed to silk do not include their geographical location.

Guides to the Bar such as the Legal 500 and Chambers UK, provide a valuable service in providing assessments of the merits of lawyers but their annual awards reflect an attitude that divides the legal profession regionally. So there are separate awards for "Chambers of the Year" and  "Regional Chambers of the Year", the implication being that chambers are considered for one or for the other.

In recent years the General Medical Council moved its regulatory hearings from London to Manchester. Administrative courts have opened up in provincial cities. Occasionally the Court of Appeal sits outside London. But much more could be done to correct the geographical imbalance, and to reflect the fact that most lawyers work outside London. It would seem proportionate, practical and cost-effective for more legal institutions to move out.

1. Having moved there from the North.

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