Judges call for curb on Bar fees

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The Independent Online
LEADING BARRISTERS face restrictions on "excessive" fees charged in legal aid cases after a review by five senior judges published today.

The ideas for bringing down charges, contained in a report by five law lords, led by the senior law lord Lord Browne-Wilkinson, follow an unprecedented summer inquiry into criminal legal aid fees.

It suggested that in some cases, although not those investigated, QCs may exaggerate the number of hours they work and that their clerks may be guilty of inflated charges.

The report was broadly welcomed by the Bar Council, but the Law Society, which represents solicitors, was disappointed that the law lords rejected its proposal that a barrister's annual earnings from legal aid work should be pegged to the salary of a senior NHS consultant.

Michael Mathews, the Law Society president, said: "The ability of QCs to charge the going rate for legal aid work has to some extent brought the whole legal aid scheme into disrepute. This is a step forward, but we are very disappointed that this inquiry has shied away from taking a more radical approach."

The report laid out new guidelines designed to close the gap between barristers' bills and the charges allowed by court authorities.

The House of Lords Appeal Committee launched its inquiry when a senior official, Michael Davies, the Clerk to the Parliaments, raised concerns over bills relating to four appeals to the House of Lords last year. The cases involved the prominent QCs Michael Mansfield, Christopher Sallon, Peter Feinberg and Richard Henriques.

In its report, the committee noted that counsel in general claimed fees consistently well in excess of what the court authorities allowed. And in the cases of the four, for example, Mr Feinberg claimed pounds 35,000 for a House of Lords fee, which was described as "wholly out of line" to the pounds 14,000 actually allowed. The barristers did not appeal against the fees eventually awarded.

The Lord Chancellor's Department put the figure for criminal legal aid in 1996-97 at pounds 355.4 million.

The committee's suggestions included:

Advising the officials who settle fees to examine a graduated fee scheme that limits legal aid payments in the Crown Court

Comparing defence counsel's fees to those charged by the prosecution

Allowing the Lords' Principal Clerk to seek fees advice from the authorities in the Court of Appeal, which deals with more criminal cases

Allowing the Lord Chancellor, in exceptional cases, to challenge on principle an unreasonably high fee.

Heather Hallett QC, the Bar Council chairman, said: "The Bar wants the current legal aid fee system replaced by pre-set fees."