Incoming chair of the Bar Council Desmond Browne QC gave his inaugural speech at Gray's Inn yesterday.
Anticipating a deepening recession, Mr Browne said: "It is at times like these, when the fabric of our society is under such severe financial pressure that more than ever the services of publicly funded criminal and family practitioners are required. Social pressures put the livelihoods, the homes and the family lives of the economically vulnerable directly on the line, and they are entitled to look to our profession as the first line of defence."
He expressed concern at moves to cut family legal aid, in particular, at a time when there is such concern over the need to protect children from harm.
"This is not an area, which can simply be abandoned to the direction of market forces - any more than one would dream of doing so in the NHS."
Addressing the issue of the steep increase in court fees in child care cases which have recently risen from £150 to nearly £5,000 and act as deterrent to many cash strapped councils from intervening to protect a child at risk from abuse, Mr Browne said: "If the trend has just recently reversed, it is desperately sad that it should have taken a case like Baby P to cause that."
Mr Browne also used his speech to flag up the importance of the £220m contribution the Bar makes each year to the UK's overseas earnings.
"Our jurisdiction is well-suited to become the choice location for resolving a wide range of international and national disputes, which will arise out of the recession and the global banking crisis, as much by arbitration as by litigation. This itself can become one of the drivers for a return to growth in the financial and services sector generally."
In conclusion, the incoming Chairman made an appeal for a united profession: "Today more than ever, the Bar needs to display unity."