Judges clamp down on court appearances

Barristers who make unnecessary court appearances on behalf of clients could face disciplinary action following calls by the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls for a crackdown on over-representation of legally-aided clients.

In what may be interpreted as a warning to the Bar not to milk the legal aid system, Lords Bingham and Woolf have asked the Bar Council to consider altering its code of conduct.

The Bar Council's professional standards committee has responded by preparing a proposed amendment to the Bar's code of conduct for approval at the council meeting on 26 July.

It is understood the judges are particularly concerned about family cases where several parties on the same side of an action, such as children and their guardians, are entitled to legal aid.

The Bar's proposals would require barristers involved in such cases to consider carefully whether their client needs separate representation. They will be required to take into account any possible conflicts of interest, the needs of justice and any special circumstances of the case.

If a client funded by legal aid insisted on separate representation a barrister would have to inform the Legal Aid Board.

The proposed change would open the way for judges or the LAB to complain to the Bar Council if they believed a barrister was needlessly representing a client in court.

Elizabeth Lawson QC, chair of the Family Law Bar Association, said there had been problems with over-representation but family barristers had been tackling the issue and were often unfairly singled out.

“I don't think there is any justification for saying it is family lawyers that are milking the system,” she said.

A spokesman for Lord Bingham said there had been long-standing concern on the bench about the problem, although there were no statistics to show how widespread it was. He said Lord Bingham's call for action was not prompted by Government concerns about the spiralling costs of legal aid.

“It has got no direct connection with the Government's review, but obviously judges are aware of the cost to taxpayer of paying legal aid,” he said.