Firms face potential drafting 'conflict'

THE TREASURY is finalising its beauty parade of private practice lawyers to help draft the 1996 Finance Bill amid growing political controversy and lawyers' concerns about conflict of interest.

A large number of City law firms, many of which are represented on the Law Society's revenue law committee, and leading barristers have been invited to tender.

The contracted lawyers will work with inland revenue and customs officials, and will draw up government amendments where necessary.

While the Treasury is saying little about the progress of tendering, it says a parliamentary announcement on the chosen firms by Chancellor Kenneth Clarke is imminent.

But solicitors and barristers say potential conflict could deter many possible contenders.

Jill Hallpike, Law Society revenue law committee secretary, says: “We've recognised the potential difficulty of conflict situations. However, most likely to deter lawyers will be the extreme pressures that Finance Bill drafting involves.”

Norton Rose partner Christopher Norfolk, the committee's chair, says a better way to introduce private legal expertise would be to extend lawyers' consultative role, rather than to make them do the drafting.

Michael Flesch QC, Revenue Bar Association chair, says there is “a great potential for conflict problems”. While the intensive drafting work would be prestigious, it could present resource problems for barristers, he says.

Treasury Minister Sir George Young says using private lawyers alongside Parliamentary Counsel via competitive tender is a “pilot project”, the costs and success of which will be monitored.

But the Association of First Division Civil Servants is opposed to the plan. It has told Treasury permanent secretary Terry Burns of its three major concerns, saying that contracting out Government legal work contravenes the Attorney General's guidance on using the private sector, that it raises potential conflict of interest, and that no cost analysis was done.

Kevin MacNamara MP, shadow spokesman for the civil service, says Labour will continue to oppose the Treasury experiment and intends to bring all drafting of legislation “back in-house”.