Bar turns tables on Govt in “fat cat' row

The Bar Council successfully hit back at the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine's attacks on “fat cat” barristers last week, putting the government on the defensive.

Figures released by the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD), showing 39 barristers earning between £190,000 and £320,000 from legal aid in 1997, plus the top 20 highest earning firms for civil and criminal work, were intended to soften up the profession before Lord Irvine's legal aid reforms.

But a well-organised PR offensive by the Bar Council won more sympathetic treatment from the national media than has been the case following similar attacks in recent years.

In a statement, the Bar Council rubbished the figures, labelling them misleading and inaccurate as they covered payments made for work done over several years. It also pointed out that the figures did not take account of VAT or chambers expenses, while in many successful civil cases the legal aid fund recovered its costs.

Last Wednesday, at a conference on legal aid organised by the Law Society, Geoff Hoon, parliamentary secretary at the LCD, faced a barrage of questions from angry solicitors about the tables for law firms.

Eileen Pembridge, whose firm Fisher Meredith was on the list, described the figures as “misleading” and “intellectually dishonest”. But Hoon said that although many legal aid firms were doing “remarkable and extraordinary work”, there was a legitimate concern about barristers' earnings.

A spokesman for Westminster Strategy, the Bar Council's PR firm, said: “This happened last year. When we heard a question had been tabled in the Commons this year we made sure we were ready.”