Letter: Barristers' fees

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The Independent Culture
Sir: You report (11 August) an allegation that barristers sometimes overcharge. That, if true, is not astonishing. A barrister whose client is on legal aid is subject to the same temptations as a garage mechanic whose customer is covered by insurance.

However, an insurance company which persistently allowed mechanics to claim higher hourly rates than other insurance companies would lose business because its premiums would be higher. Legal aid is a sort of insurance against the need to defend ourselves against unjust accusation. Unlike private insurance it is a state monopoly. Parliament, though it devolves the details to government, is therefore responsible for setting legal aid barristers' hourly rates.

In a serious criminal prosecution the judge is also paid at a rate determined by Parliament. His or her salary is that of a civil servant running a large government department. Counsel for the defence often receives more public money than the judge. We know this because successful legal aid barristers decline judicial appointments. The current level of legal aid fees therefore has worse consequences than the cost to the taxpayer: Competent lawyers do not become judges and it is hard for those who are seen to be less competent, since they are appointed as judges, to gain respect in court.

Let Parliament decree that no lawyer in a case shall be paid from public funds at a higher hourly rate than the judge. That would be a clear rule that everybody could understand; it would give us better judges and it would save public money.


St Albans, Hertfordshire