Court shake-up to break barristers' monopoly

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The Independent Online
LORD IRVINE, the Lord Chancellor, yesterday took action to break the near-monopoly that barristers have on appearances in the higher courts.

In a move to cut legal costs, Lord Irvine unveiled plans to allow 2,000 lawyers directly employed by the Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office, local councils and companies to argue their own cases in front of judges.

At present, as employed barristers - rather than in private practice - they have no "rights of audience" in any courts above magistrates' and have to hire another barrister to appear on their behalf.

The move would increase competition and could force barristers to cut their fees.

Lord Irvine said the current system was run in the interests of lawyers, not the public, and needed reform. "Antiquated restrictions on which lawyers can appear in the higher courts, which force people to pay for two lawyers in cases where one would do, can have no place in this system," he said.

The Law Society, representing solicitors in England and Wales, "warmly welcomed" the Lord Chancellor's proposals which will allow more qualified solicitors to present cases in the higher courts. Law Society president Phillip Sycamore said: "Many highly competent solicitors, who are skilled advocates in the lower courts, are deterred from applying for rights of audience in the higher courts because of these difficulties."

Just 634 out of the 70,000 practising solicitors have been granted rights of audience in higher courts under the existing rules, the society said.

Heather Hallett QC, Chairman of the Bar, said: "Providing there is a level playing field, with proper safeguards to ensure quality and high standards, barristers have nothing to fear from fair competition ."

Barristers have claimed that only self-employed lawyers should prosecute in court as an independent check on the strength of the case.

Lord Irvine dismissed the claim and said: "If, as has been claimed, it is wrong in principle for someone to be prosecuted by an employed lawyer, how is it that we tolerate this practice in the magistrates' courts, where over 95 per cent of criminal cases are tried?"

The plans would allow the Serious Fraud Office to use its own lawyers instead of hiring barristers - whose fees in major fraud cases are thought to have run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.