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Barristers attacked for price-fixing as think-tank calls for silk cut

The system of having Queen's Counsel - or silks - should be abolished because it only exists so barristers can charge higher fees, claims a solicitor writing for a right-wing think-tank. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, looks at the case for the prosecution.

For generations the letters QC have held a certain mystique for the general public. The successful drama series about barristers starring John Thaw - Kavanagh QC - even contained them in its title.

But according to a report called Silk Cut, published by the Adam Smith Institute today, the purpose of such an imposing title is little more than as a price-fixing ring which raises legal fees for the rest of us.

In a damning attack on a 400-year-old tradition, the document says the existence of silks has become "untenable". It says: "In practice the opinion of silk is often endowed with a prestige which does not necessarily correspond with its value. There is often little to distinguish the silk's opinion from that of a competent junior."

The report says that the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine has criticised excessive fees for barristers, with some earning well over pounds 1m a year, and gives an example of a legally aided criminal trial, comparing the fees for different barristers. For a four-day hearing for a manslaughter case, a silk would receive pounds 5,365 from legal aid while a junior would receive pounds 2,683 for the same work.

It says big firms of solicitors have complained about QCs charging pounds 750 an hour for commercial work and adds: "A retainer for silk of pounds 40,000 is not uncommon, with a daily `freshener' of pounds 2,000 a day."

The number of QCs - around 900 - has stayed at about 10 per cent of the total number of barristers (they are King's Counsel under a king). The report, by retired solicitor Peter Reeves, criticises .the lack of openness surrounding the appointment of QCs, formally by the Queen but on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor.

The barrister first has to make a formal application which goes through a lengthy but secretive selection process known as the "silk round". Most QCs are appointed between the ages of 38 and 50 with the main qualification being a "recognition of prowess in advocacy" says the report. In practice the only real difference for a new QC is the chance to make more money, it adds. "Literally overnight silk are placed in a position to charge far more than junior counsel who may be equally skilled."

It concludes that "as time passes the only alternative is to abolish" QCs, who were first known as "silks" in the 19th century because of the shininess of their gowns.

The Bar Council said the attack was unfair. Nigel Pascoe QC, chairman of the Bar's public affairs committee, said all professions had a career ladder, and said the QC system recognised ability in the same way as the appointment of a hospital consultant.

Silk Cut: Are Queen's Counsel necessary? pounds 16, Adam Smith Institute, 23 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BL.