Legal fat cats plead their case for the cream

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The Independent Online
Barristers and legal aid campaigners reacted with anger yesterday after the Lord Chancellor succeeded in turning a House of Lords debate about a massive increase in court fees into an attack on "fat cat" QCs who earn a million a year.

Beleaguered barristers had to concede that Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, had pulled a highly effective political stroke.

Robert Owen QC said: "The Bar is committed to working with others to make justice affordable, accessible and cost- effective. Spiralling court fees have only one effect and that is to deny justice for people on low incomes. That is the issue that needs to be addressed and was not addressed in Monday's debate."

A Bar council spokesman said Lord Irvine's closing speech in the debate served only as a distraction from the court fees issue, pointing out, rightly, that millionaire QCs work predominantly for the private sector, and for big corporate clients where money is simply no object. Lord Irvine himself was one of these before taking office as Lord Chancellor, although it is thought he was a mere half-million man.

One million a year is the kind of money that borders, in the estimation of some, on the obscene. Lord Irvine cleverly alluded to the fact that this handful of top lawyers - commercial, tax and libel specialists - earns four times as much as top surgeons.

But equally, fat-cat civil QCs earn about the same as some top accountants, captains of industry, or advertising, marketing and financial high-flyers, with the apparent approval of their clients and shareholders.

Such a state of affairs enabled the Lord Chancellor to declare on Monday that "fat cat lawyers railing at the inquity of court fees do not attract the sympathy of the public".

The fortunes of the pounds 1m-a-year fat cats, however, has little to do with the crisis facing legal aid. But it is equally obvious that the hike in court fees - designed to recover an extra pounds 50m a year, bringing the total annual fee income to pounds 335m - must act as a deterrent to some would-be litigants. High Court fees have been raised from pounds 120 to pounds 500 in some cases, and rises of between 50 and 150 per cent apply in other civil proceedings. People in the legal aid poverty trap, with sound but modest claims, are now likely to think twice before issuing proceedings with a view, for example, to persuading a recalci- trant defendant to settle a case.

Those claiming benefits such as Job Seekers' Allowance, Disability Working Allowance and Family Credit do not automatically qualify for fee remissions or reductions, like those on Income Support, and must apply for them, not always successfully.

But delay and uncertainty are the principal deterrents, alongside cost, to seeking justice. The operation of the new court fee system involves all three ills.

Vicki Chapman, policy officer for the Legal Action Group (LAG), the legal aid campaigning organisation, said: "We are concerned about the impact of the increases on people on very low incomes. Lord Irvine has completely failed to answer that question. If you are seeking to suspend a warrant for possession, you haven't got time to seek a fee remission or reduction and wait for it to arrive. You have to find the fee and if you can't, your legal action does not proceed."

Roger Smith, the group's director, said the Lord Chancellor's emphasis on Bar fat cats was designed to divert attention away from the court fees row. The number of people being put off by high fees was unquantifiable, he said, "but research suggests that large numbers of people who could litigate don't. Court fees are a part of this."

Meanwhile, sums of pounds 150,000 to pounds 300,000 can routinely be made by leading QCs in big criminal and civil cases, particularly fraud and child care. Despite the existence of set pay scales in civil cases and the introduction of graduated fees in criminal cases, a large element of discretion over payment remains.

Justice for the rich? Courtroom heavyweights who reap the rewards

Roy Amlot QC, 54, a heavyweight criminal silk who both prosecutes and defends. Lord Chancellor's Department says that in 1995-96 he received pounds 450,000 to pounds 499,000 from the criminal legal aid fund. Acted for defence in Barlow Clowes and Blue Arrow fraud cases.

Charles Gray QC, 55, has become the leading star of the libel bar. Likely to earn up to a million most years. Educated at Winchester and Oxford, he has homes in London and Dorset. Glittering list of famous clients includes Jason Donovan, Ian Botham and Jonathan Aitken.

Andrew Park QC, 58, also likely to earn a million in his mainly tax practice. He represented Octav Botnar, former head of Nissan UK and once one of the world's richest men, when the Inland Revenue issued a warrant for his arrest last year, but in general he tends to keep away from big-name clients.

Anthony Scrivener QC, 61, an all-rounder who does civil and criminal and a great deal of well-paid overseas work. He also does a certain amount of pro bono work. While a thorn in the flesh of the white male legal establishment, he earns a million most years. He was chairman of the Bar in 1991.