Lord Chancellor's smoke screen on court fees

Lord Irvine's attack on fat cat barristers might just seem to be the actions of a sourpuss, but there is a deeper game afoot

There is a certain irony in the statement from a Bar Council spokesman last May that solicitors had "absolutely nothing to worry about" following the announcement of a Labour legal team dominated by barristers.

This is because it is the barristers who have cause for concern after being labelled "fat cats" by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg QC.

While more than 100 barristers enjoyed strawberries and champagne at the annual Bar Council Garden Party at the Middle Temple last week, just a mile down the road in the chamber at the House of Lords, Lord Irvine was launching a stinging attack on the fees enjoyed by his former colleagues.

Many QCs, he said, would regard earning £500,000 as a poor year. He argued that it was a bit rich for the Bar Council to call for lower court fees when they were living the high life off legal aid.

"Fat cat lawyers railing at the inequality of court fees do not attract the sympathy of the public," said Lord Irvine, a reformed fat cat himself.

But his cleverly constructed attack, which garnered front page coverage in the press, diverted attention away from the issue of whether court fees are affordable.

"As a barrister, one learns that attack is sometimes the best form of defence," said Fountain Court head of chambers Peter Scott QC. "The plain fact is that court fees are a deterrent to some of those seeking to go to court."

Barristers like Scott were targeted by Lord Irvine as earning in excess of £1m a year. However, top commercial barristers say privately that estimates of their earnings are inflated because they do not take into account high overheads or the fact that they are in the top league for only a short part of their professional lives.

Scott is also one of hundreds of barristers who give time free to the Bar Pro Bono Unit.

Bar Council chair Robert Owen QC said that the real question was not how well barristers were paid, but rather how well poor clients were served.

"It concerns how you see the role of the state," he said.

"It is a primary role of the state to provide courts. The question of how much lawyers earn in the private sector is irrelevant."

Owen also pointed out that in legally aided civil and criminal cases barristers fees were set for them.

And he said that two weeks ago the Bar showed itself willing to confront controversial legal aid issues when it moved to deter barristers who needlessly over represented clients in Family Court cases by amending its code of conduct.

Owen is now looking to continue dialogue with Lord Irvine over the issue of court fees.

He suggested that one option would be higher commercial court fees to subsidise the fees in other courts.

And the message coming from the Bar Council is that it has not fallen out with the Lord Chancellor and there is no need to panic.

However, Lord Irvine's decision to play to the public gallery during the Lords debate will have convinced the Bar that it cannot take his support for granted.

As a result it will be courting Lord Irvine vigorously over the coming months in the hope that this time next year he will be enjoying strawberries and champagne at its garden party, instead of sitting in the Lords publicly accusing barristers of skimming the cream off the public purse.