Lawyers' bills in fraud cases to be curbed

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The Independent Online
BARRISTERS' AND solicitors' bills in serious fraud cases are to be substantially cut back under new proposals to be put forward today by the Legal Aid Board (LAB).

The clamp-down includes restricting barristers to hourly rates so that they are paid no more than the judges before whom they appear, which can happen under the present system. Under the proposals, teams of lawyers will also have to produce up-to-date assessments of how much each case will cost.

The move follows a number of high-profile fraud cases where the Lord Chancellor's Department has been asked to rubber stamp multi-million pound bills.

The most costly case to date was the Serious Fraud Office's prosecution of the Maxwell brothers which, at its conclusion, amounted to pounds 15.9 million in legal aid. Defence lawyers in the Guinness case received pounds 2.4 million, the BCCI case involved legal aid costs of pounds 4.3 million while the Brent Walker bill was pounds 2.3 million.

Richard Collins, head of criminal services at the LAB, said that it was cases like these which had prompted public concern over the cost of defending serious frauds. He said the present system was "wholly ineffective" with costs running out of control.

He said 1 per cent of all criminal cases represented 40 per cent of the pounds 349 million Crown Court legal aid budget.

The LAB said the Government had failed to deliver sufficient controls in dealing with the escalating costs of serious fraud cases and the larger drugs trials which made up the 1 per cent. Between 1992/3 and 1997/8 spending in the higher criminal courts rose from pounds 221 million to pounds 349 million while the number of cases remained constant.

Senior LAB lawyers echoed the concern raised by the House of Lords in its report last year on the cost of barrister's fees in criminal appeals. In October, the House of Lords concluded: "There is public concern about the cost of legal aid, and in particular about the rate at which counsel are being remunerated out of public funds."

The LAB proposals are contained in a consultation paper which sets out how to get the best value for money from the new criminal defence services which will replace the legal aid system.

Under the new legal landscape set out in the Access to Justice Bill, all solicitors who wish to be paid for publicly-funded criminal work will have to contract with the Legal Services Commission - the successor to the Legal Aid Board.

By April 2002 only solicitors with the requisite experience and skills will be able to take on serious fraud and other complex cases. In the 1 per cent of cases, special contracts will be individually negotiated with the law firm. Solicitors who take on cases for which they are not properly experienced will simply not be paid out of public funds, the LAB warned.

Barristers too would be assessed for their suitability to handle complex and long-running cases. The LAB also recommends a central list of approved counsel for such cases.