Four barristers, including the leading human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC, are the subject of the inquiry which began yesterday at the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, over bills they have submitted in such cases.
It was revealed that Mr Mansfield had his fee cut by the House of Lords taxing officer by 45 per cent - from pounds 22,300 to pounds 12,300 - for work done on an unsuccessful appeal last year against a murder conviction. In total, his team submitted a bill for pounds 62,000 which was cut to pounds 31,500.
But the clerk to the parliaments, Michael Davies, felt that the Mansfield team's fees - together with legal-aid bills submitted by three other QCs involved in House of Lords appeals - were still too high.
Yesterday, five Law Lords began hearing evidence in a two-day inquiry into how such fees were calculated. Their ruling could have widespread implications for the legal-aid earnings of QCs, which critics have said are running out of control.
But the Bar Council, represented by Sydney Kentridge QC, one of the country's leading advocates, argued yesterday that the Law Lords should deal only with the four cases in question and said that they had no right to try to peg barristers' earnings to those of other professionals.
Mr Kentridge said: "The great majority of the members of the bar who do legal aid work, work very, very hard for a renumeration which is accepted as reasonable but certainly is not extravagant."
But Lord Browne-Wilkinson, chairing the hearing, said evidence had been submitted that there had been "enormous growth" in legal aid fees, which were rising at a rate "miles above inflation". He said it appeared that the whole system of fixing fees may need to be reformed.
The inquiry heard that evidence submitted by the Lord Chancellor's Department showed that legal aid earnings in the year 1995-96 had reached pounds 286m, an increase of pounds 100m from the previous year.
Lawrence Collins, solicitor advocate representing the Law Society, submitted evidence suggesting that the earnings of top barristers should be brought into line with leading hospital consultants.
Mr Collins said that consultants could earn around pounds 200,000 a year, including the value of pension and other benefits, which would be sufficient incentive to ensure that barristers did not leave the profession.
Mr Kentridge had argued that such comparisons could not be carried out by taxing officers - the trained assessors who vet every legal-aid bill - or the Law Lords.
"The idea that a taxing master in fixing a fee for a particular case should take into account what the proper annual income should be for a barrister is verging on the absurd," he said. "Not only that, [that] he should inform himself of what surgeons should earn goes over the line of absurdity.
"It is no doubt a proper investigation for the Lord Chancellor, Treasury, government or parliament. It is the sort of matter which a commission of inquiry should go into. But it can't be gone into by a taxing master, it can't even be gone into by a court, not even by your Lordships."
He said that the fees in most criminal legal aid cases were subject to a graduated fees structure. Only six to ten cases a year were referred for appeal to the House of Lords and the taxing officers were fully capable of assessing whether fees claimed amounted to "reasonable renumeration". He said the system was not in need of reform. The taxing officers who judged such claims did "not merely bark, they bite", he said.
cases where bills were cut
Michael Mansfield's team submitted a bill for pounds 62,000 following a three-day appeal hearing against the murder convictions of Gary Mills and Tony Poole. The fee was cut in half to pounds 31,500 by the House of Lords.
The two men were convicted in 1990 of the murder of Hensley Wiltshire after a fight in a Gloucester squat. The appeal was dismissed.
Mr Mansfield's personal fee was cut by the House of Lords taxing officer, James Vallance White, from pounds 22,300 to pounds 12,300. His junior counsel, Vera Baird, had her fees cut from pounds 22,537.50 to pounds 7,850.
Peter Feinberg QC
submitted a pounds 37,000 bill for an unsuccessful appeal which was heard over three days in February last year. His bill was cut by the House of Lords taxing officer to pounds 16,000.
Richard Henriques QC claimed pounds 28,500 for his work in a successful appeal in April of last year; his bill is being reviewed. He led the table of QCs earnings from legal aid in 1995-6 with more than pounds 500,000. He was listed in the 1996-7 top 20 legal-aid earners, as earning between pounds 350,000 to pounds 399,000.
Christopher Sallon QC claimed pounds 34,600 for his work in freeing Philip English, whose conviction and life sentence for the murder of police Sergeant Bill Forth was quashed. But after scrutiny by House of Lords officials he was only paid pounds 21,600.Reuse content