LAB defends counsels' advice

THE LEGAL Aid Board (LAB) has defended barristers against an attack on the quality of counsels' opinions in legal aid cases by Gary Streeter, the parliamentary secretary at the Lord Chancellor's department.

Last week, Streeter called for a crackdown on counsels' opinions after accusing barristers of issuing over-optimistic opinions, which he claimed were leading to too many hopeless cases being pursued.

But in a move which legal aid practitioners will interpret as a rebuke to Streeter, the LAB has issued a statement stressing that “the success rate of legally aided cases is high, which suggests that in most cases good advice is given”.

And although, like Streeter, the LAB said it was concerned about the quality of opinions, particularly where cases had received judicial criticism, it added that it was “also aware that cases can be lost for many different reasons which have nothing to do with poor or over-optimistic opinions from barristers”.

The LAB said it was “considering a means of monitoring barristers' opinions more generally so that their views on prospects of success can be linked with the actual outcome of the case”.

Streeter's attack on counsels' opinions has angered the Bar Council, which argues that the independence enjoyed by barristers makes it more rather than less likely that they will give a realistic opinion about the viability of cases.

In addition, the Bar Council points out that the largest body of complaints it receives is from disgruntled clients complaining that barristers' decisions have led to their cases being discontinued.

Bar Council chair Robert Owen QC has written to Streeter to ask him for any evidence that barristers are abusing the system.

“We would be grateful if you would forward any evidence you have of unwarrantedly optimistic opinions leading to the pursuit of hopeless cases so that they can be dealt with through our professional disciplinary mechanism,” said the letter.