The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, has questioned whether lawyers working in a public defender system would be sufficiently motivated to do the job properly.
Speaking at his second "meet the press" session since becoming Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham was distinctly cool about the potential worth of a public defender system.
He questioned whether young lawyers who became public defenders would be motivated to improve their advocacy skills and advance their careers.
He added: "I think I would personally find it harder to motivate myself if I was paid a salary."
His remarks, although measured, will delight the Bar, which is preparing to mount a furious campaign against the public defender principle, amid growing speculation that the government is gearing up to launch a public defender pilot scheme.
Lord Bingham faced a barrage of questions on a variety of issues during his hour-long session with the media.
He supported an independent review of drug laws, believed a privacy law would evolve in the courts; and welcomed government moves to strengthen community sentencing.
Asked about the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service, Lord Bingham said: "I think that one is tempted to say they are trying to do their best in difficult circumstances."