Bitter response to Irvine's 'hijack'

Pressure groups have expressed anger and bitter disappointment that last week's House of Lords debate on civil court fees was hijacked by the issue of fat-cat barristers.

There is also concern that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg QC, used the debate as a way of warning judges, who have been highly critical of the steep rise in fees, not to speak out on controversial issues.

Lord Irvine secured national newspaper headlines by attacking barristers who he said regarded an income of £500,000 in one year as a bad year.

He claimed lawyers' fees were far more of a deterrent to litigants than court fees and said he regarded current exemption and remission from court fees, along with legal aid, as adequate to ensure that the poorest people were not excluded from access to justice.

Although he conceded that there may be an autumn review of the way fees are structured and automatic exemption, he sent out an emphatic message that “what the state provides free, or at a charge, is a matter of policy for government”.

And, in what was regarded as a deliberate swipe at Sir Richard Scott, who has spoken out against government policy to make the courts self-financing through increased court fees, Lord Irvine pointed out that members of the higher judiciary had signed the fee order necessary to implement the increases in the High Court.

Scott last week refused to comment on the debate.

Both the Legal Action Group and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux said they were disappointed that the Lord Chancellor failed to address the anomaly that not all people on means-tested benefits were automatically exempt.

Marlene Winfield, senior policy officer for legal services at the National Consumer Council, said NCC research showed only 18 per cent of litigants who resolved their civil disputes in court used barristers.

“The Lord Chancellor really has a very narrow experience of the law and needs to broaden it. He needs to get out into the real world and meet real people.”