The increasing cost of legal action and the curbing of public funding could threaten the quality of legal representation, in-coming Bar Council chair Desmond Browne QC has warned.
Browne, who is joint head of chambers at 5 Raymond Buildings, said at his inaugural speech this afternoon that, with the “fabric” of society under severe financial pressure, the services of practitioners are required more than ever.
However, he pointed out that the cost of accessing those services is proving prohibitive for most people. The chair-elect gave the example of the increasing cost of care cases, which he said had risen from £150 to £4,825 for a full proceeding.
“It’s impossible to believe that this massive increase in fees does not enter the minds of some councils, when deciding whether to intervene to protect a child at risk from abuse,” said Browne. “If the trend has reversed, as some press reports have suggested, it’s desperately sad that it should have taken a case like Baby P to do so.”
Browne also said that the Legal Services Commission’s (LSC) proposal to slash £13m off fees payable to the profession is likely to “accelerate the flight out of publicly funded work”. He continued: “…it will have thoroughly prejudicial repercussions for diversity and is likely to deter those otherwise minded to enter the profession.”
Browne, who will take over as chair of the Bar Council in January, expressed concerns that poor funding for litigators through the LSC’s graduated fee schemes had acted as a stimulus to law firms to use in-house higher court advocates, who may not have the requisite experience compared to the external bar.
“I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about this. Let there be no headlines about ‘Bar Wars’. This is solely about the best interests of the clients. Lack of proper funding cannot be allowed to unbalance, still less pervert, the system.” said Browne.
In conclusion Browne said that the bar should feel optimistic about its long-term future, but added: “[This is] provided that we start to confront our demons right away. We cannot afford to act like ostriches.”