Straw blasts `fat cat' lawyers

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The Independent Online
Cherie Booth QC yesterday gave a cautious response to a call from Home Secretary Jack Straw for senior barristers to stop charging excessive fees.

The Prime Minister's wife - herself a highly-paid civil QC - remained impassive as Mr Straw told the Bar's annual conference in London that the days when they could simply apply upward pressure on the "going rate" and catapult themselves into ever higher earnings brackets had to end.

Ms Booth, who chaired the conference and invited Mr Straw to address it, said afterwards: "We at the Bar share your priority for better justice for all." But she declined to comment on Mr Straw's attack on the level of fees.

The Home Secretary's call was the second Government warning to senior barristers that they are risking the imposition of caps on excessive fees.

His remarks echoed the onslaught in the summer by his Cabinet colleague, the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, on "fat cat" lawyers earning up to pounds 1m a year. Both interventions are clear signs of a strategic decision by the Government to prepare the ground for new controls on what the top earners can expect from the public purse.

Like Lord Irvine, Mr Straw spotlighted the top one per cent of cases, mostly involving City fraud, which is swallowing nearly 40 per cent of legal aid in the Crown Courts and a significant proportion of the pounds 1.6bn a year overall criminal and civil aid budget.

The concerns came in the wake of the multi-million pound legal aid payouts in a string of high-profile criminal trials involving figures such as the Maxwell brothers, BCCI fraudster Abbas Gokal and disgraced financier Roger Levitt. Fees earned in such cases far exceed the sums earned by senior doctors carrying out treatment on the NHS.