Cut out solicitors to reduce legal fees, says OFT

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The Independent Online

The Office of Fair Trading has called on the Government to put an end to the restrictive practices which force the public to pay for a solicitor whenever they require the services of a barrister.

The Office of Fair Trading has called on the Government to put an end to the restrictive practices which force the public to pay for a solicitor whenever they require the services of a barrister.

A report by the OFT, which was handed to ministers on Friday, has called for action after finding the current system serves only to increase client's legal bills unnecessarily.

OFT investigators are particularly concerned that under the Bar's code of conduct, barristers can only be approached directly by a member of the public after first "instructing" a solicitor. The report concludes that this rule is an unnecessary and costly obstacle to the access of legal services.

Ministers are now expected to implement the OFT's recommendation. A government source said yesterday that he could see no reason why people should have to pay for both a barrister and solicitor when they only want a barrister.

The Bar Council, which represents 8,000 barristers in England and Wales, said that it welcomed any proposal which improved choice for the consumer. But a Bar Council spokesman cautioned that a wholesale change would not work to the client's advantage in all cases.

"There's no benefit to a person who has been arrested in going to a chambers for help when a solicitor is in a much better position to advise them at the police station," said the spokesman.

The Government is now considering whether it is best to remove the "double lawyer" obligation in the Bar's rules, or to develop the BarDIRECT scheme which currently licenses specified organisations and public bodies, such as police forces and trade unions, to leapfrog the solicitor and go directly to a barrister.

A spokeswoman for the Law Society, which represents 80,000 solicitors in England and Wales, said that while it favoured widening consumer choice it was important that clients were afforded "proper protection".

She said that ministers would have to think carefully about the implications of barristers handling client money and the need for wider professional indemnity insurance.

The OFT report, which is first being considered by the Department of Trade and Industry, also calls for an end to the restriction on barristers and solicitors setting up in business together or with other professionals such as accountants.

The Law Society said yesterday that it favours multi-disciplinary partnerships (MDPs) where partners from different disciplines can share fees.

But the Bar has told the OFT that MDPs would restrict access to the Bar and threaten legal professional privilege and the duty of confidentiality. Guy Mansfield QC, who led the team which prepared the Bar's response to the OFT's investigation, said there were "no unfair restrictions on professional practice at the Bar". "The Bar can safely say it is now one of the most vibrant and competitive professions in practice," he said.

The OFT has also investigated whether an informal price-fixing network operates between barristers through their clerks. A spokeswoman for the DTI confirmed receipt of the OFT report. She added ministers would "make their recommendations in due course".