Bar memo admits 'ludicrous' fees

THE BAR Council has secretly admitted that some barristers are claiming “ludicrously high” legal aid fees after the government handed it a hit-list of 20 barristers whose fees have been heavily reduced on taxation.

A confidential memo, obtained by The Lawyer, reports “anecdotal accounts of barristers claiming fees where they do not appear entitled to do so or of silks discovering that their juniors are claiming ludicrously high amounts”.

It adds: “One barrister sent in a response to the Inland RevenueS indicating that he always inflated his fees knowing that they would be taxed down.”

The memo was circulated to members of the Bar Council's professional standards committee last month in response to a crack-down on overcharging by the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD).

About 20 barristers have been reported to the Bar Council by the LCD. Their names have been unearthed by an LCD investigation into lawyers' fees in crown court and criminal appeal cases which was launched last December.

Head of professional standards and legal services at the Bar Council Mark Stobbs said that the Bar had not been “formally asked to take action” but had been “invited to respond” to the LCD's letter.

Currently, barristers who claim excessive fees can be disciplined only if they have been clearly dishonest.

The memo, written by Stobbs, suggests making it a disciplinary offence for barristers to overcharge by 50 per cent. Stobbs also suggests a rule requiring barristers to “blow the whistle” on any colleague known to be putting in excessive fee claims.

The LCD's hit-list marks the latest stage of a long-running government campaign to crack down on the fees earned by “fat cat” barristers. In May, the LCD published lists showing the 20 barristers and firms which received the most last year in legal aid from criminal and civil cases.

And in June, the House of Lords launched an inquiry into the fees claimed by four top barristers – Michael Mansfield QC, Peter Feinberg QC, Christopher Sallon QC and Richard Henriques QC. During the inquiry, it was revealed that in 1995/96 counsels' fees in crown court and criminal appeal cases were reduced upon taxation by an average of 56 per cent.

A spokeswoman for the LCD said it had also written to the Law Society listing firms that had made excessive claims. However, the Law Society insisted it had not received the letter.

The Bar Council and LCD have both refused to reveal the names of the barristers on the hit-list.

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