Sets introduce contracts to ensure firms pay up

Barristers’ chambers have been forced to draw up contracts between ­themselves and their instructing firms after ­waiting seven years for the Law Society and Bar ­Council to reach agreement on formalising how the bar is paid for its services.

Historically clerks agreed verbal contracts between solicitors and barristers when accepting instructions, but the Bar Council ­introduced rules in 2001 stipulating that ­written contracts must be signed when retainers were accepted.

The Bar Council and the Law Society have spent the past seven years trying to thrash out a standard ­contract that sets can use when instructed by solicitors. The Bar Council was due to publish its guidance on ­contracts in January, but this was delayed after talks broke down.

According to one lawyer involved in the seven-year-long negotiations, it was “a long and tortuous process” that was not helped by ­barristers pontificating on simple points while lawyers demanded unreasonable terms.

The key sticking point was how to discipline lawyers who refuse to pay barristers’ fees and whether barrister conduct should be considered when it comes to non-payment.

Traditionally it was considered a breach of professional standards if solicitors failed to pay up. This rule was scrapped several years ago, leaving chambers with no means of redress when fees were not paid.

However, following news that Enterprise Chambers successfully sued West End firm Sibley & Co for fees owed following confusion over contracts (The Lawyer, 19 October), chambers have come under increased ­pressure to have enforceable contracts in place.

Chambers do have the option of having non-­paying firms added to a Law ­Society blacklist, but Outer Temple Chambers commercial director Christine Kings said this did not offer a ­practical solution to the problem of non-payment.

“More and more chambers realise that they need contracts because there’s nothing to fall back on,” she said.

The guidelines are expected to provide the framework for all contracts between barristers and solicitors.

One senior practice director said: “It will undoubtedly change the positions in the relationships between barristers and lawyers.

“Chambers haven’t been able to recover fees directly from clients; equally they don’t share the risk of being exposed to a client who doesn’t pay.”