The Criminal legal aid system in the UK is the envy of the world. It guarantees to all accused who are alleged to have committed the most serious and appalling crimes, the services of the "stars" – the best criminal QCs. No other system in the world provides such high-quality representation free of charge. It may seem very immodest and self-serving to make such an assertion. However, it is widely accepted at the Bar as reality.
Such top-class representation is available in the UK because the system offers good career prospects to the successful and gives substantial financial rewards to those who climb to the top of the tree.
Elsewhere in the world there are various forms of public defender systems. They do not provide able and outstanding advocates with good career prospects and substantial financial rewards. The result is inevitable. Having acquired their core skills in the public defender system, budding stars move to lucrative private practice and are lost to the public.
Consequently, there are no stars, no creme de la creme to protect the interests of the poor and less well-off when charged with grave offences. This inevitably means that people are wrongly convicted.
In our system too there are serious miscarriages of justice. Articulate, convincing liars called by the prosecution combined with the failure of the prosecuting authority to fully disclose material to the defence are largely responsible for this appalling situation.
However, there will be more miscarriages of justice in the UK if the system is altered and remuneration reduced.
All top criminal QCs have spent years developing their skills, and continue to spend many hours analysing hundreds of witness statements and exhibits and considering complex points of law and expert evidence. All represent people who are hated and vilified for their alleged crimes. In such cases, defendants need fearless, courageous, independent and skilful QCs to protect their interests. That is what the system currently ensures.
But earnings quoted by the Lord Chancellor's Department last month, in response to a parliamentary question, are misleading, because:
They do not represent regular annual payments. Earnings fluctuate year by year.
They include payment for cases which were completed in previous years.
In many cases, they are inaccurate.
They include 17.5 per cent Vat.
They include travel and hotel expenses incurred in the course of work.
They do not indicate the substantial expenses (at least a third) incurred in running chambers and the pension payments that are deducted.
When these matters are taken into consideration, counsel's income is significantly less than the figures suggest.
I acknowledge that top criminal QCs earn significant fees. However, the best in most professions earn as much. If these fees are generally deemed to be excessive, the proper solution is increased taxation for all high earners in all professions and business.
To single out top criminal QCs would destroy a key part of the Legal Aid system in the UK, and those accused who need it most would suffer.