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What is the cab-rank rule?

As a young budding barrister one question I have been repeatedly asked is "if you had a feeling your client was guilty of rape or murder, would you still defend them?", and to their despair I said "yes" and began to explain the cab-rank rule.

The cab-rank rule is considered to be an access to justice for all. The word 'all' is key here. Some may argue that it is just a barrier to a barristers' potential wealth but the rule is essentially in society's best interest that it is to be followed even if the legal market wishes otherwise.

The aim of it is to ensure that every person has a right to a fair trial and thus, justice. It states that a barrister should represent their client regardless of whether they disagree with their beliefs, opinions and other external factors. Meaning, no matter what the barrister thinks of them or the nature of the case, they will still receive representation and it is the barrister's professional commitment to do so. Seems noble, right?

However, the cab-rank rule has exceptions, a barrister can refuse instructions if they lack sufficient experience to handle the case or has other professional commitments meaning they would not have enough time to prepare for the case. The rule also states that a barrister cannot hand over the case to another barrister without the consent of the client and cannot go against the decided date for the briefing to attend a social or non-professional engagement instead. Fair right?

Many people in our society cannot afford legal representation so they receive legal aid and are funded by the state. Despite the low fees associated with legal aid cases, the cab-rank rule clearly states that you should still represent the client. Equally however, if the barrister will not be paid appropriately or the client is not willing to pay an appropriate fee, they can refuse the case. A barrister can also pick and choose cases that give them the highest revenue. Clients who can afford their own representation essentially have a better chance to choose their barristers, however those who are less well-off cannot. Not so fair anymore?

The Law Society believe that the "cab-rank rule has reached its sell-by date" as they stated when responding to the Bar Standards Board. The Law Society summarised the key issues around the rule by expressing that "barristers for obvious commercial reasons are likely to want to accept work; solicitors are unlikely to wish to press barristers to do work which is obviously unpalatable to the barrister; and there is a good supply of barristers willing to undertake work." Even though the Law Society have concerns over the cab–rank rule, how can we be sure that barristers will still be willing to undertake work given to them if the rule was to be abrogated?

Principally, to abolish the cab-rank rule carries more disadvantages than advantages, for example barristers may be more tempted to take on cases in favour of more lucrative privately funded instructions with greater financial reward, leaving smaller cases with no representation. It is incredibly important to remember that the Human Rights Act 1998 emphasises the significance of the cab-rank rule as it enforces the rights of an individual to receive representation and ensure a fair trial. Therefore, by abolishing the rule, the legal justice system may not be able to deliver fair and free trials. It may be on the basis that the money you pay, buys justice, and those who may not have that financial security or receive legal aid are instead shunned.

Alaa is currently a sixth form student studying biology, history and politics at A-level. Alaa is a young budding barrister and politician who wishes to study Law at a prestigious university. In the future she hopes to continue to empower the youth and to be an advocate of change, eventually at an international level. As a Big Voice London legal blogger, she aims to reach out to all young people who are also interested in Law in order to broaden their horizons on various legal topics and to spark questions and curiosity in their minds about something they had not known before.

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