Lawyers' pay: Is it an injustice?

High-earning barristers will come under scrutiny as House of Lords investigates legal aid
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The Independent Online
IT GUARANTEES controversy, recriminations and headlines: why are top lawyers paid so much, and in particular paid much more than other similar top professionals such as surgeons.

In two weeks, the House of Lords will hold an unprecedented and public inquiry into the thorny question of legal aid fees being claimed by some of the country's leading barristers.

Yesterday, Justice Lightman joined the attack on QCs while giving the spring Chancery Bar lecture in London. He said that there was an element of truth in the public's view that the granting of silk constituted a "licence to print money. It is undoubtedly the occasion and pretext for a mark-up in fees."

The Bar Council hit back, saying: "Judge Lightman is a Chancery Judge and his experience is based on a very small area of legal work involving major plcs and banks."

M'learned friends are not taking the inquiry lightly. The four QCs whose fees have been called into question - high-profile left-wing barrister Michael Mansfield, Christopher Sallon, Peter Feinberg and Richard Henriques - have instructed fellow QC James Munby to represent them. And the Bar Council has hired one of the highest paid advocates around, Sydney Kentridge, to watch over the profession's interests.

The Law Lords will be deciding whether barristers' legal aid fees should be on a par with the rate for private practice, or brought into line with other professionals paid from public funds. If they agree on the latter, it could mean a sizeable drop in the earnings of many QCs.

Inevitably this has brought into focus how much more top barristers earn than others paid from the public purse. The most obvious examples are senior doctors, who on average earn far less.

Lawyers were surprised and then resentful when one of their own, the Lord Chancellor, criticised their "fat cat" lifestyles. There were charges of hypocrisy as Lord Irvine was himself one of the "supersilks" earning close to or more than pounds 1m a year before he took public office in Tony Blair's government.

However, the Golden Circle, as they are called, continue to be in demand, sometimes booked up for months in advance.

Of the four whose fees triggered the House of Lords enquiry, Mr Henriques led the league table of QCs' fees from legal aid in 1995-96, earning more than pounds 500,000. He says this related to more than one year. In 1996- 97, Mr Feinberg's earnings from legal aid were between pounds 350,000 and pounds 399,000.

As a celebrated civil rights lawyer, Mr Mansfield, is often on shows like The Moral Maze. Mr Sallon is a former chairman of the Bar Council's public affairs committee.

But the four are not regarded as the top overall earners in the profession. Among these are Jonathan Sumption. Called to the bar in l974, he had become a silk within 10 years, and had broken through the pounds 1m a year barrier by l994. He is now booked up for more than a year in advance by clients in the banking and financial services sector.

George Carman's latest victory was for the Guardian and Granada TV against Jonathan Aitken. The libel specialist has appeared in a number of high- profile cases. He is believed to charge clients up to pounds 10,000 a day with an additional pounds 50,000 retainer.

Anthony Grabiner has been described as "probably one of the most expensive silks in the world". Hugely in demand, Mr Grabiner has represented in his time Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, Morgan Grenfell and Kleinwort Benson. The QC's annual income is said to regularly top pounds 1m.

It is different in the world of medicine. A consultant in an NHS hospital will be getting between pounds 44,000 and pounds 57,000 a year. About 277 of them will be receiving a merit award of pounds 54,910 on top of that, normally given on a five-yearly basis.

The senior doctors can also make money from private practice, but this amounts on average to less than pounds 40,000 a year.

Sir Magdi Yacoub is perhaps the highest profile surgeon in Britain, with the opportunity to charge extremely large fees for his specialist skills in heart surgery. But his basic salary remains the consultant's maximum of pounds 57,000 a year plus the merit award. Colleagues estimate that he probably make between pounds 150,000 to pounds 200,000 a year from his private surgery, mainly carried out at weekends. But some of that is ploughed back into NHS research.

Not all law bodies are against parity between lawyers and other professionals like doctors when it comes to legal aid. The Law Society will be putting in a written submission to the Lords inquiry. Russell Wallman, the head of policy said: "We think a fairly reasonably experienced lawyer might earn the same as a GP and the very best barrister or solicitor, the same as a top hospital consultant."

Anthony Stephen Grabiner, QC

Personal details: Age 53. Married with three sons and one daughter.

Background: London School of Economics and Lincoln's Inn.

Employment: Recorder since l990, and described as "one of the most expensive silks in the world". Chambers at Essex Court, Temple. Has represented Robert Maxwell against the Board of Trade, Rupert Murdoch to curb picketing outside his Wapping newspaper plant, and Morgan Grenfell in the Guinness crisis. When Lord Irvine went to the woolsack one of his last cases was taken over by Mr Grabiner. He is known as diligent and thorough on detail, and often works late into the night.

Earnings: Charges pounds 800-plus an hour specialising in commercial law. Annual earnings said to be more than pounds 1m a year.

Sir Magdi Yacoub, surgeon

Personal details: Age 63. Married with one son and two daughters.

Background: Cairo University.

Employment: Foundation Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Royal Brompton Hospital, and consultant surgeon at Harefield Hospital, Middlesex. Regarded as one of the most eminent heart surgeons in the world. Said to work seven days a week. A "normal" working day is from 7am to 10pm.

Earnings: As a National Health Service consultant he receivesaround pounds 57,800 a year. He also gets a yearly A+ merit award of pounds 54,910. Sir Magdi is also involved in private practice, where it is believed he earns around pounds 150,000 to pounds 200,000 a year. Donates some of it to NHS research projects at his hospital.