Time for honesty over the use of taxpayers' money

For all the profession's carping about "fat cat" attacks, orchestrated by the Government and carried out by an ever-willing media, it is a simple fact that some lawyers earn a huge amount of taxpayers' money every year through legal aid work.

And when a professional gets paid that much money, it surely does not need saying that their claims on the legal aid fund should be both honest and responsible.

Or maybe it does need saying. Figures from the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) show that overall, counsels' fees in 1995/96 were reduced upon taxation by a massive 56 per cent. Other recent years have proved better – but not much.

Last week, The Lawyer saw a memo sent out to members of the Bar's professional standards committee (PSC) by its head Mark Stobbs, in which he recounts the tale of one barrister who told the inland revenue that he always inflated his fees because he knew they would be taxed down anyway.

The Bar Council says it will act against those guilty of misconduct or dishonesty when claiming fees. There is talk of disciplining anyone whose fees are taxed down by more than 50 per cent.

Rules could come in that force barristers to blow the whistle on colleagues who they know are guilty of overestimating their fees.

Unfortunately, the LCD has had to wield a big stick to force the Bar Council into taking such action.

The LCD has been monitoring barristers and solicitors claims on the legal aid fund since December 1997 and recently presented both the Law Society and the Bar Council with a selection of the worst offenders and a clear instruction to do something about it.

Taxpayers may resent paying large sums of money to lawyers but at least the issue of high fees is an arguement the Bar Council can defend. Lawyers trying to cheat the taxpayer with massively inflated claims for fees is a different matter.

Barristers and solicitors must openly accept that it is a problem and, ungrudgingly, sort it out.