Fee system 'goes against spirit of Act'

A NEW standard fee system for Crown Court trials is heavily barrister-biased and goes against the spirit of the Courts and Legal Services Act, according to a senior Law Society official.

The warning comes from David Hartley, of the Law Society's legal practice directorate, who is negotiating with the Lord Chancellor's Department over the planned new graduated fees payment system.

The scheme, which is expected to be introduced in April, is cost neutral for practitioners but will allow the Lord Chancellor to control fee levels more easily.

The Bar has argued that the system will render the Government's radical legal aid reform plans unnecessary.

But the Law Society is very critical of the scheme, which centres on a basic fee for the advocate's preparation, conference, advice on plea and evidence, and first day in court topped up with refresher fees.

It complains that the new payment system is biased in favour of court work and does not take into account the efficiencies gained when the same solicitor is responsible for preparation and advocacy.

Hartley said: “Our view is that the scheme goes very much against the spirit of the Court and Legal Services Act, as it looks as if it won't be attractive to solicitors.

“It will preserve the illogical way in which barristers fees are currently set.”

Patrick Milmo QC, chair of the Bar Council's legal aid and fees committee, rejected society accusations that the Bar promoted the scheme in order to drive solicitor advocates from the courts.

He said standard fees were designed to deal with advocacy and there was a danger of solicitor advocates being paid twice for their work if they were paid for preparation under the scheme.

Responding to a society suggestion that some QCs' fees should be farmed out to junior counsel and solicitor advocates, he questioned whether the argument would be pursued after solicitor advocates had been awarded silk.