Legal aid top 20 infuriates Bar

The Bar has reacted angrily to a new set of league tables of the top 20 recipients of legal aid, claiming the figures are “guestimates” which paint a wholly distorted picture of their true income.

Four “Top Twenty” lists, detailing the highest amounts received by firms and barristers in the year 1995/96 for crown court work and from the legal aid fund – for civil legal aid and criminal magistrates' legal aid – show an elite group of QCs earning up to £400,000.

They were issued by the Lord Chancellor's Department in response to parliamentary questions tabled by the MPs Frank Field and John Marshall.

This is the first time that such lists have been published for barristers, and in the majority of cases the LCD failed to confirm its figures with them.

A Bar Council spokesman described the figures as “guestimates”. He stressed that the figures often represented lump payments for cases which had lasted several years and included VAT and overheads at chambers which could amount to 25 per cent of income.

“If you asked this question in any year you would get a completely different list. The figures cannot be equated to what barristers earn in one year,” the spokesman said.

Leader of the Northern Circuit, Richard Henriques QC, of Deans Court Chambers in Manchester, is particularly annoyed because he said the figure, which puts him top of the table with more than £500,000 for legal aid in the Crown Court, was inaccurate. He claimed he actually received £356,468, including VAT, for the year 1995/1996, and that the figure quoted includes a sum due two years earlier, but which was subject to a re-determination.

“When you compare QCs' fees with bankers and stockbrokers and other people with commensurate responsibilities, I don't think anybody could make a case out that we are being overpaid,” he said.

The top law firm recipients of legal aid in civil and criminal magistrates' courts cases are Birmingham practice Brendan Fleming and Sheffield-based Irwin Mitchell, which both received more than £2.6m.

Garstangs, a Bolton practice, received more than £3m in crown court fees and Harkavys, based in London, acquired between £2.5m and £3m.

David Hartley, head of solicitors' remuneration at the Law Society, said: “The figures for solicitors include disbursements which can be very substantial. Even before the Green Paper [on legal aid], we said there was perhaps a need to regulate QCs. Apart from graduated fees, there are no prescribed rates for QCs' fees for legal aid work, whereas for solicitors, rates are largely set by the Government.”