What Is the ‘Cab Rank’ Rule for Barristers?

At St Pauls Chambers, our barristers have extensive experience representing clients, regardless of what they are accused of, in line with the cab rank rule.

This blog post aims to clearly illustrate what the cab rank rule is, its importance, and the debate surrounding it, including professional insights from expert barrister Sophie Mitchell.

What Is the Cab Rank Rule for Barristers?

In English law, the cab rank rule refers to the obligations of barristers to accept any work in their speciality, provided they are available and appropriately compensated; this means they cannot discriminate against particular clients even if they disagree with the client’s views or actions.

This is designed to maintain access to fair legal representation and justice for all, and also aims to protect barristers from criticism for taking certain cases where their client or the cause they are representing may be objectionable.

An available barrister must take instructions regardless of:

  • The identity of the client
  • The nature of the case
  • Whether the client is paying privately or is publicly funded
  • Any belief or opinion which you may have formed as to the character, reputation, cause, conduct, guilt or innocence of the client

Exceptions to the Cab Rank Rule

While a barrister cannot refuse instructions on the grounds listed above, there are some exceptions to this rule, including where the barrister may not be available, may be required to act without a junior or may be required to undertake foreign work.

See the BSB handbook in full for more information about exceptions to the cab rank rule.

When Did the Cab Rank Rule Come into Effect?

The history of the cab rank rule can be traced back several hundred years to the end of the 18th century, with strong links to British Whig lawyer and politician Thomas Erskine, famous for defending radicals and reformers at a time when revolution was feared to spread from France to England. The most famous of those he defended was Thomas Paine in 1792, who was tried for seditious libel in his book Rights of Man. In this case, Erskine made a case for the right of individuals to criticise and reform their government, along with highlighting a barrister’s duty to work on even unpopular cases.

An integral aspect of the English Bar for hundreds of years, the cab rank rule continues to form a cornerstone of access to justice. The cab rank rule’s name derives from taxis; at a taxi rank, the next available vehicle is obliged to carry the first passenger who approaches them, as long as they are able to pay for the service.

On 27 July 2013, the Legal Services Board consented to a change in the Cab Rank Rule of the Bar Code of Conduct to replace the current Terms of Work with new standard contractual terms. This aimed to modernise processes for referring work to barristers.

Why Is the Cab Rank Rule Important for the Criminal Justice System?

The cab rank rule is crucial for the criminal justice system as it ensures that everyone can get the legal representation they require for a fair case. It also protects barristers from being criticised for taking on a controversial client, as they have no choice in the matter (unless certain specific exemptions apply).

At St Pauls Chambers, our barristers represent a wide variety of clients, including those who have been accused of very serious offences, and we ensure every case is expertly and effectively presented to the Court. 

See our case studies to learn more about the range of clients we represent.

Why Is the Cab Rank Rule’s Efficacy Debated?

There has been some controversy surrounding the cab rank rule for barristers. The cab rank rule means barristers cannot refuse a case, as long as they are available and fairly renumerated; as a result, some barristers may avoid taking up unfavourable work by simply saying they are too busy to take on the case. Alternatively, some barristers may choose to be publicly outspoken about their beliefs in order to avoid being approached for certain types of case – this way, they aren’t refusing an instruction, but are deterring that instruction from coming their way.

Some claim that this means there is still an unbalanced access to justice, in spite of the cab rank rule’s existence.

What Happens When a Barrister Breaches This Rule?

In the rare cases that barristers are discovered to violate the cab rank rule, they are at risk of receiving fines or going to disciplinary proceedings.

 For example, a 2006 case resulted in a barrister being reprimanded for professional misconduct and fined £1,000 towards the costs of the case because he refused to work for a homosexual client due to his Christian beliefs.

The Cab Rank Rule and Barristers in the Media

  • Bar Standards Board report

In 2013, an independent report commissioned by the Bar Standards Board was conducted to monitor whether the cab rank rule was still relevant. The results revealed that its elimination would threaten access to justice and that it operated to protect consumer interests by ensuring the accessibility of counsel.

  • Barristers with an eco-conscience

More recently, in early 2023, the power of the cab rank rule was brought under scrutiny when UK lawyers (including six King’s Counsel barristers) defied the bar rules, signing a declaration that they would not prosecute peaceful climate change protestors or work for businesses pursuing fossil fuel projects. The barristers were accused of undermining a key factor of the legal system, neglecting to address that everybody has the right to receive fair legal representation.

While some argued that the barristers’ actions derived from good intentions concerning environmental law, others noted that the well-established approach of the fair legal system is needed to reach the greater good.

  • Keir Starmer’s reputation

The most recent controversy in the media relates to British politician and barrister Sir Keir Starmer. Some sources attempted to politically discredit Starmer for overseeing several controversial cases along with decisions not to prosecute. The most famous case Starmer was connected with was Jimmy Savile, who escaped justice concerning the rape and sexual abuse of children. While Starmer did lead the CPS when it failed to charge Savile, he was not the reviewing lawyer for this case.

Despite this, opponents like Boris Johnson criticised Starmer for being associated with his unpopular clients, highlighting the cab rank rule’s importance in protecting those who have a duty to represent any client, regardless of their unpopularity.

Professional Analysis of the Cab Rank Rule

Barrister Sophie Mitchell adopts a few professional insights and opinions on the cab rank rule.

“Barristers are of course entitled to have their own private views on controversial topics, and further their own causes, whatever they may be. Their training and skillset often enables them to add great value to such causes. But I firmly believe that the cab rank rule and the independence of the Bar is a fundamental part of our justice system.

“It is possible to hold private interests whilst not undermining the integrity of the justice system as a whole, thereby running the risk that some people could go unrepresented. With the same token, barristers ought never to face criticism based on the clients they represent.

If barristers start picking their clients based on their private values, it is inevitable that the media and the public will soon follow by attacking barristers for the private values they do – or do not – further the cause of, leading to the erosion of the cab rank rule, undermining the integrity of the justice system and those who serve it. It will also have a knock-on effect for the reputations of those barristers who have followed their code of conduct by acting professionally in extremely challenging cases – how will the media and the public know which barristers are furthering their own private causes and which barristers are simply accepting instructions under the cab rank rule? It could even threaten the personal safety of barristers if the profession starts to be associated with representation based on personal taste. In cases involving dangerous people, unlike witnesses – who may be entitled to witness anonymity – barristers have no such protection.”

How Can St Pauls Chambers Help?

Our team of barristers is renowned for their operations in acting in defence of countless clients across a variety of cases, including those in complex crime, civil law, and financial offences. Please look at our terms of engagement for barristers to learn more about the cab rank rule for barristers, or contact us for further details.

Related people

Sophie Mitchell

Sophie Mitchell

Call: 2010

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