Barristers are not corrupt, but must get better organised

Nigel Pascoe QC says most incorrect claims are down to poor organisation and overwork rather than any concerted criminal effort. Nigel Pascoe QC is chairman of the Bar Public Affairs Committee and leader of the Western Circuit.

Perception and reality: the double dilemna for all PR spokespeople. Time, then, for some home truths on the recent legal aid controversy.

Paradoxically, the leaked memo to the Bar Council's professional standards committee (The Lawyer, 11 August) can do the Bar much good by pointing out how seriously we take dishonesty. Because a cold-blooded claim for work not done is not an academic ethical dilemma, but a crime.

Unfortunately every occupation has a percentage of people seeking to cheat the system. I believe such people make up a miniscule but still utterly unacceptable number of our profession. The Bar will root out dishonest claimants and get rid of them by ruthlessly suspending or disbarring offenders. That, at least, is my own perception.

The Lawyer is entitled to call for action, as the newspaper did in fair and moderate terms. We can tackle overt dishonesty, however limited it may be, by improved claim procedures and the involvement of heads of chambers and circuit and Bar leaders. It is not difficult to seek to enforce the very high ethical standards that our honourable profession claims to possess.

I believe the problem is far less serious than serial dishonesty, and is rather a creature bred of rumour and sometimes baseless envy. So-called excessive claims are often the result of a desperately busy profession unused to the solicitor's iron discipline of time records for all work done. Estimates are given in good faith, but without sufficient detail. How many partly-prepared speeches or submissions are honed silently in odd and unusual hours!

Let no one say that should not count. Yet the time sheet was not to hand as you bolted down your food, oblivious yet again to the family, or walked the dog or rushed through traffic to some distant court. So the frantic process continues, after court hours, day after day. Thinking time and pen to paper time and thinking time againS We are not all disorganised and, for many, record keeping is excellent, but I accept at once that as a profession we must do better in accurately claiming public money.

We can and we will. For, ironically, the partly estimated hours sometimes work against us. If only the public understood just how much goes into those cases which dominate every waking hour. Perhaps you have to do it to understand. Fortunately, fair-minded fellow lawyers do.