Chambers slams prosecution cuts

A London chambers has presented the first hard evidence of underfunding of prosecution counsel to Dame Barbara Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Chambers of James Hunt QC, together with five other chambers in London and the Midlands, has collected details of 80 recent cases showing that defence counsel are being paid an average of 80 per cent more again than their prosecuting counterparts.

It was spurred into action after a behind-closed-doors meeting of the Bar Council at which Mills is understood to have restated the Crown Prosecution Service's long held position that there was no hard evidence that fees being paid to prosecuting counsel had slumped.

But Hunt, the leader of the Midlands and Oxford Circuit, received support from other Bar Council members at the 20 September meeting, when he described the disparity in fees as a “public scandal”.

Pressure has been growing on the CPS to respond to claims that it is pitting inexperienced counsel against the best defence practitioners since The Lawyer first revealed the problem in October 1996.

Then, however, criminal practitioners were only relying on anecdotal evidence.

With the introduction of the graduated fees system in January, whereby defence fees are fixed using a formula, it has become easier to compare fees.

Roy Amlott QC, chair of the criminal Bar Association, said his organisation was also compiling evidence that an inequality of arms existed between the defence and the prosecution. John Milmo QC, chair of the Bar Council's legal aid and fees committee, said it was also conducting research.

Amlott said: “We are collating information because the CPS seems reluctant to accept the situation, although we strongly suspect they know what is going on.”

Milmo added: “If the CPS is instructing counsel on the basis of the fee rate rather than the need to instruct senior counsel then it seems to me that something has gone wrong.”

A statement issued by the CPS confirmed Mills had agreed to consider the Bar's evidence, but appeared to hint that the problem was caused by rising defence fees, rather than declining prosecution fees.

“Increases in legal aid payments should not be the catalyst for parallel increases in prosecution fees, or vice versa,” it said.