Bar Council doth protest too much

THERE is a comical aspect to last week's furore over the league tables of top earning QCs.

Barristers spend a lot of their time boasting that solicitor advocates will never take over their higher court work because the overheads at solicitors' firms are so much higher than their own.

Once a year, however, when the Government publishes its league tables, they fall over themselves to stress the extent of their overheads.

As we report this week, the Bar Council is celebrating a public relations victory following a furious row with the Government over the accuracy of the tables. In the long run, it is difficult to say who has come out worse from this tussle. But if the Bar Council's well co-ordinated rebuttal of the figures really was a victory, it was a hollow one.

The figures are certainly misleading. Of course our top legal aid QCs do not regularly take home half a million pounds a year in fees. But that does not mean to say that many of them are not being overpaid – there is no doubt that they are.

Some barristers, senior clerks and practice managers privately admit that the system is too generous. But they point out that they are not breaking any laws – the system allows them to earn the kind of fees they are getting and it is only human nature that they take advantage of it.

It has been argued that in order to get the best barristers you have to pay them the kind of money they are currently getting. But what about the legal aid solicitors who earn a fraction of what their contemporaries at the Bar are paid? In 1995 – the first year that league tables were published – the respected senior partner of one of the firms on the list revealed that his partners were taking home less than £20,000.

The system needs good legal aid solicitors just as much as it needs good barristers. Last week's row has not changed a thing. The system is still in urgent need of reform.