Cab Rank – whose rule is it anyway ?

The recent LSB-commissioned report on the Bar’s “Cab Rank Rule” seems to have sparked plenty of debate, including a seemingly hysterical reaction from the Chair of the Criminal Bar Association and, mercifully, some measured and informed responses from respected commentators Lucy Reed of St John’s Chambers and Professor Richard Moorhead of UCL.  The report effectively concludes that the cab rank rule is no longer effective or relevant in the modern legal marketplace.

Having worked in chambers for many years, I am not entirely surprised that members of the Bar take seriously any criticism of a principle that goes to the very heart of their core professional values: the need to ensure fair representation and access to justice for all, to support the principle of the rule of law and to protect and promote the public interest.

But let’s look at the context. The report was commissioned by the Legal Services Board, in line with their regulatory objectives.  These objectives can be found here but you needn’t bother clicking on the link, as they can also be found in my previous paragraph.  In other words, the LSB and the Bar seem to be completely aligned in their objectives.

You could ask about the reason behind the report and its timing. The LSB provides us the answers on their website under the helpful heading “Why this ? Why Now ?”  One of the stated reasons is to explore whether :

“… the cab rank rule could potentially both undermine its own aim to improve access to justice (by reducing opportunities for specialisation and so the provision of niche services) and also damage other regulatory objectives, such as to promote competition.”

While this is a clear indication that protection of the Bar’s competitive position is a consideration for the LSB, this reason seems to me to be fundamentally flawed. The cab rank rule explicitly only applies to a barrister accepting work “in any field in which he professes to practise” (para 602 of the Code of Conduct).  Barristers are clearly free to profess to practice in the area(s) of specialisation of their choice, so this particular concern is in my view misconceived.

The LSB’s reasoning gathers significantly more strength in its assessment of the effect of the exclusions to the cab rank rule (set out in paragraphs 603-607 of the Code of Conduct) as:

“perhaps recognising that its absolute status is less relevant in 2013″

and tellingly:

“The fact that so much legal aid work, where access to justice may be thought paramount, is exempt …”

You can now add to this exemption any work where instructing solicitors do not agree to the standard contractual terms recently prescribed by the Bar Council.  If the Law Society’s reaction is any guide, then this means the cab rank rule will be applicable to an ever decreasing amount of cases, for reasons of the Bar Council’s own making.

Moving on from theory to practice, in basic terms the cab rank rule exists to prevent a scenario such as one where a barrister refuses to accept a case on the grounds that he disagrees with the principles or beliefs of the potential client, whether personally or in the context of their case, thus denying them fair representation.  I can only speculate as to how many barristers, when faced with the prospect of a hopeless case, for a client they don’t like, for a solicitor offering no prospect of repeat business, for a small fee, in a distant court, when they are behind on their paperwork and have other, more attractive offers on the (clerk’s) table decide they are compelled to accept the brief purely because of the cab rank rule. I would suggest that this scenario is as common as, say, a taxi turning down a fare.  In any event, no harm would be done as another taxi, or barrister, would be waiting in line.

Looking from a different angle, let’s consider the rigour with which the cab rank rule is observed. The report rightly highlights the lack of any relevant data on this.  I don’t believe any is needed, as I am convinced that it has never, ever been breached.  This may sound surprising, but less so if you look in detail at the rule itself, particulary the broad and hugely subjective exceptions outlined in paragraphs 603-606 of the Code of Conduct.  It’s hard to avoid comparison with the well-know quote from the Life of Brian : “what have the Romans ever done for us ?”

The discretion afforded to any barrister in deciding whether to accept an instruction is so wide as to render the practical application of rule meaningless.  How can you possibly define a breach, much less prove one ? Issues such as availability, expertise and reasonable fees are very much in the eye of the beholder.

I agree entirely with the report’s summary :

“While it can be lauded as a professional principle enshrining virtuous values, as a rule it is redundant.”

It now lies with the LSB to consider the report in the context of its statutory objectives and taking on board the views of stakeholders.  Its ambit quite rightly encompasses the entire legal services market, not just the Bar.   It has invited responses from representative bodies, which I hope they will receive from the Law Society and CILEx as well as the Bar Council and specialist bar associations.

Whatever the outcome, no single branch of the profession has any claim to a monopoly on righteousness.

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