Top lawyers 'earning huge legal aid fees'

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The Independent Online
Some top barristers earn more than pounds 400,000 a year each from public funds, according to official figures disclosed yesterday.

Earlier this year Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, published a Green Paper calling for the first time for cash limits on legal aid payouts. The annual legal aid budget is pounds 1.4bn.

According John Taylor, Parliamentary Secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department, the 10 highest legal aid earners in the High Court received between pounds 312,441 and pounds 448,437 last year for defending in criminal trials.

In a letter to the Labour MP Frank Field, Mr Taylor revealed that in the civil courts, payments to barristers ran from pounds 277,503 to pounds 155,035. The letter also details the gross earnings of the top 10 solicitors' firms from the legal aid fund. The top payment to a firm of solicitors on the civil courts list - which also covers criminal work in magistrates' courts - is pounds 3,243,614. The 10th placed firm received pounds 1,683,591.

The highest earning solicitors' firm for crown court work took pounds 1,037,025, while the firm in tenth position received pounds 372,376. One firm appeared in both top 10s, gaining a combined total of pounds 3,168,898. None of the firms or individual barristers was named.

Mr Taylor admitted that some of the figures might be higher as the department could not be certain it had identified all the payments to particular firms or barristers.

The Bar Council stresses that the top earners are not representative of the majority of barristers, and that those working on legal aid often earn less than they could if they took more lucrative private work. A recent survey in Legal Business magazine suggested the top commercial barristers earn in excess of pounds 1m a year, while well-known criminal defence barristers all earned less than pounds 500,000 a year.

One classic example of how legal aid should not be used was the case of Dr Jawad Hashim, 57, an Iraqi with Canadian citizenship. He reputedly owns several homes and employs servants, but when he was sued by his employers, the British taxpayer funded his entire defence.

Colin Ross-Munro QC, who led his defence in a complex civil action in the High Court, was paid pounds 671,111, and his three other barristers received nearly as much again between them. His case ended in July 1993 with him ordered to pay compensation to his former employers, the Arab Monetary Fund, from whom he was found to have embezzled pounds 33m. His legal aid bill has exceeded pounds 4m. Most of Dr Hashim's assets were disputed.

Figures from the Lord Chancellor's Department show that barristers' bills in expensive criminal legal aid cases are reduced on average by a quarter, and solicitors' by one-fifth, when they are centrally audited to see if they are "reasonable".

All bills of more than pounds 4,000 are checked, or "taxed", before payment. For barristers, the figures show that in 1993-94, there were 6,788 cases centrally taxed, involving pounds 99,582,218, an average per case of pounds 14,670. On average, 73 per cent of the claim was paid. There were 3,039 solicitors' bills over pounds 4,000, an average of pounds 13,057 each, adding up to pounds 39,679,527. On average, 82 per cent of these were allowed.