Fees talk tackles conflict of interest

John Malpas

A CONDITIONAL fees seminar has been organised for barristers and clerks by an enterprising solicitor who claims the Manchester Bar is "way behind" in its understanding of the issue.

The controversial new "no win no fee" agreement laid before Parliament by the Lord Chancellor shortly after Easter will have a major impact on the relationship between solicitors and counsel.

Frank Patterson, head of personal injury litigation at Manchester firm Pannone & Partners, believes the risks inherent in the new arrangements will create a conflict of interests which barristers and solicitors must devise strategies to resolve.

He has organised a seminar for 6 June at Manchester Town Hall to allow barristers and clerks the chance to discuss the way forward.

"I got the distinct impression from speaking to members of the Bar locally, and their clerks, that they were a long way behind solicitors in understanding and preparing for the new costs regime," he says.

"Obviously the wholehearted involvement of counsel in the new system will be essential if we are to offer a genuine no win no fee."

Stephen Diggles, senior clerk at St James's Chambers, says he definitely plans to attend the meeting.

"The problem we have is that we've had absolutely no direction from the Bar Council on this. I haven't been sent a thing on conditional fees, and as far as I know nor has my head of chambers," he says.

Michael Mulholland, a tenant at the set who conducts a great deal of personal injury work, also intends to go along to the seminar.

"It seems to me that conditional fees raise more problems than answers about the relationship between the barristers and solicitors," he says.

"What happens, for example, if the solicitor and the barrister take a different view as to the viability of the case? The solicitor thinks there's a very good chance, but the barrister believes it's rather less. Does the barrister take a higher uplift? All these problems need to be resolved.

"I know and respect Frank Patterson and I shall be very interested to know how he sees the thing working in practice."

Like Patterson, Mulholland fears the new arrangements may see solicitors and barristers constantly looking over each other's shoulders because of the risks involved in taking on a case where there is no guarantee of a fee at the end of the case.

"There's got to be a degree of trust involved," he says.

Unlike many of the barristers and solicitors in Manchester, Patterson has seen a copy of the Bar Council's draft model agreement between barristers and solicitors.

He says the agreement envisages far too much to-ing and fro-ing between counsel and instructing solicitor to ensure the case is being run satisfactorily for both sides.

For Patterson this will simply push up costs for the client. Instead, he intends to draw up individual agreements between his firm and chambers it regularly deals with.

"Hopefully the agreements will allow for greater latitude in the arrangements," he says.

A Bar Council spokesman says guidance notes for chambers on conditional fees were being sent out to chambers imminently.

The recommended agreement between solicitors and barristers would provide the proper safeguards without being too bureaucratic, he added.