Bar rejects Law Soc's fee claims

THE BAR is infuriated by a Law Society attack on the level of legal aid fees paid to barristers denouncing “excessive” QC fees of up to £300,000 a year.

Law Society president Charles Elly has moved to steal the Lord Chancellor's legal aid thunder by announcing a blueprint for reform to restore public eligibility without the need for “crude cash limits”.

The society's 'Design for the future' consultation document strongly rejects the restriction of legal aid work to firms with block legal aid contracts which is planned by Legal Aid Board director Steve Orchard.

But its money saving suggestions have angered the Bar. They include tighter controls over QC fees to save £40 million and the restriction of representation to just one advocate in most court cases at a £15 million saving.

Bar Council legal aid and fees committee chair Peter Birts QC describes the document as “surprisingly long on rhetoric and short on new ideas” and rubbishes its claims that barristers escape the tight controls on fees exerted by the Lord Chancellor on solicitors.

“Silks in criminal legal aid earn very much lower fees than those in private practice, everyone knows that,” he says.

“The Government plans to reduce current legal aid expenditure, it doesn't suggest that fees should be cut for solicitors or barristers.”

The Lord Chancellor's Green Paper on legal aid reform is expected on 16 May. But at the Legal Aid Practioners' Group's annual conference in Cardiff on 29 April, Orchard confirmed legal aid lawyers' fears that future legal aid is likely to be cash-limited and available only from firms contracted to the Legal Aid Board.

He envisaged three to five-year contracts for franchised firms and one-year contracts for other firms “while they rise to franchise standards”.

According to new LAPG co-chair Bill Montague, the group grabbed a single crumb of comfort from Orchard's promise of lengthy consultation. “I don't think we're interested in quick and dirty solutions to what are horrendously complex issues,” he said.

The Law Society's deputy vice-president Henry Hodge promises to fight plans to limit legal aid to approved suppliers which he says will limit access to justice.

“No longer will clients be able to get legal aid help from any one of the thousands of solicitors offices around the country,” he says, adding that rural areas may be particularly hard hit.

– Sir Tim Chessells, a chartered accountant, has taken over from John Pitts as chair of the Legal Aid Board. He chaired the London Implementation Group which worked on effecting the recommendations of the controversial Tomlinson Report dealing with hospital/medical school services in London.