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Bar Talk
24 October, 2008  
Reverse takeover at VicBar

At the heart of the sudden change of guard at the Victorian bar lies a struggle over real estate. Barristers Chambers Ltd is endeavouring to shore up its position while members flee to independent rooms


imageVicBar is going through one of its all too regular conniptions.

What seems to have happened is that the jocks that run Barristers Chambers Ltd have staged a reverse takeover of the bar council itself.

In the process the previous council has been summarily executed and in its place a new council installed that includes five directors of BCL.

Peter Riordan has been rissoled as president and that position has been taken by Geoffrey John Digby, deputy chairman of BCL. All senior female members of the council also have been rolled.

The other directors of BCL now on the bar council are: Michael Colbran, Paul Anastassiou (BCL chairman), Matthew Walsh and Paul Connor.

Digby had been senior vice chairman of the bar so his turn was next anyway.

However, it is not unusual for a bar chairman to serve more than one term and Riordan had announced that he was standing again to complete the most important task that the bar council has undertaken in recent years, a strategic review of the bar and all of its operations, of which the largest and most valuable by far is BCL.

Digby and his fellow BCL directors on the bar council appear to want to take control of the review and so it’s been a swifter and more deadly transition to a new bar chairman that anyone expected.

So swift that it took over a week to sort out the new office bearers: Colbran (senior vice), Mark Moshinsky (junior vice), William Alstergren (hon treasurer) and Scott Stuckey (assistant hon treasurer).

Unlike the set-up in NSW, where Counsels Chambers Ltd is a separate entity from the NSW bar, in Victoria BCL is a wholly owned subsidiary of the bar ‘n’ grill.

The company is run by an oligarchy appointed by the bar council. Apart from the inevitable conflicts that necessarily flow from this arrangement the bar also has spent a great deal of its members’ money over the years propping up the BCL balance sheet.

Over the past decade about $5.5 million of Victorian barristers subscriptions has been shovelled into the gaping maw of the chambers company.

At the moment BLC is what might be termed long on empty rooms. A crisis is looming. You can see the state of BCL’s emptiness here.

The company is looking for tenants for 53 of its rooms, many of which it rents from other landlords in Melbourne and a few of which are quite expensive at $4,000 a month. In this economic climate the position is unlikely to improve quickly.

Now that BCL controls the bar council the company’s interests, surely, are better insulated.

Despite the fact that Riordan promised in the recently published bar annual report that the strategic review would be completed by September, it is yet to emerge.

It is understood that Peter Leckey of Management Advisors has recommended that the bar council take a more active role in the management of Barristers Chambers Ltd or possibly divest itself of this large and sometimes troublesome business – in other words deinsulation.

Little wonder that the BCL brigade moved fast to shore-up its position in the face of some seismic challenges.

BCL has long behaved as the monopoly brute on the block. When people started leaving its rooms and going into “independent” chambers in the 1990s, BCL threatened to cut off the listing of their names in the bar directory, cancelled their email addresses and telephone extensions and intimated that they would cease to exist as barristers, if not human beings.

Until 1996 it was a breach of the bar rules to have chambers outside BCL, but in the past ten years or so there has been an exodus of members from BCL rooms to independent sets of chambers.

Now about 40 percent of the bar has chambers outside the BCL orbit. Ten years ago only about 20 Victorian barristers occupied non-BCL rooms.

That shows people are voting with their feet and that the BCL option is regarded increasingly as a pretty poor one.

Today there are 17 sets of “independent” chambers in Melbourne. Ten years ago there were two. For instance, one of the newer sets, Melbourne Chambers, now has 82 members, or about five percent of the bar.

 
 

Reader Comments

Posted by: Anonymous
Date: November 3, 2008, 3:12 am

BCL has done a good job in difficult circumstances. As the list of vacant chambers illustrates, it is possible to rent chambers from BCL for a range of rates from quite inexpensive ($400 per month) to quite expensive ($4000 per month). All rooms are available on monthly tenancies, with no bond or other collateral. Not bad for accomodation in the CBD. Until the 1990s, barristers had to rent from BCL. That meant that the demand for rooms could be predicted precisely, and rooms could be made available accordingly. It worked well. Unfortunately, the ACCC did not like the idea of a benevolent monopoly (and it was benevolent) so they brought it to an end. Now that counsel can take independent chambers, BCL has a much less predictable market. The problem is that BCL has to acquire space long-term and let it short-term. When the demand is hard to predict, it must either disappoint by not having space available for barristers who want chambers, or carry the cost of empty space. The result is that rents are higher now than they would have been if the benevolent monopoly had been allowed to continue. It is a problem created by the ACCC 15 years ago, and it is a credit to BCL that it is still providing a range of high quality chambers in such a difficult market. It is also a credit to the directors of BCL who act without reward and cop a fair bit of abuse for their efforts