Speaking to the Bar Council conference last weekend, Law Society president Charles Elly tried to calm barristers' fears over possible referral fees – or kickbacks – between solicitors or barristers for advocacy work.
Kickback deals on court work would be against society advocacy rules, and Bar concerns may be based on a misunderstanding of the way in which standard fees in the magistrates' courts are split between solicitors, he said. Suspicions about advocacy referral fees were “completely unfounded” and would be “highly undesirable”.
However, the Bar remains convinced that proposals on advocacy kickbacks are under consideration and says its concerns will only be allayed if the Law Society produces specific guidelines banning such deals.
Robert Seabrook QC, Bar Council chairman, says the Bar is considering reporting the society to the Office of Fair Trading and the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee on legal education and conduct – which has a monitoring role on the issue of solicitor advocacy.
“We take very strong exception to this. It opens up the prospect of a most unsavoury market in advocacy services where people buy and sell briefs. It can't possibly be justified in the public interest,” says Seabrook.
“We will do everything possible to persuade the Law Society of the undesirability of this practice. For some reason the Law Society has not been prepared to amend its guidelines,” he says.
Neither the Bar nor the society have evidence of these kickbacks. The Bar says that a proposal for such deals was brought to its attention earlier this year. Since then it has requested the society to ban it.
Bar kickback fears coincide with heightened concern over advocacy fees, following recent reports from barristers that solicitor-advocates earn up to twice as much for non-standard fee work in the Crown Court.
“These are both aspects of the 'even playing field' argument,” says Seabrook.