Fees purge spares QCs in criminal proceedings

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The Independent Online

The Lord Chancellor was accused of backing down on Labour's promise to slash the estimated £400m legal aid bill paid to "fat-cat" barristers after the Government confirmed yesterday that QCs appearing at criminal trials would be exempt from a direct cut.

The Lord Chancellor was accused of backing down on Labour's promise to slash the estimated £400m legal aid bill paid to "fat-cat" barristers after the Government confirmed yesterday that QCs appearing at criminal trials would be exempt from a direct cut.

Lord Irvine of Lairg's apparent volte-face comes three months after Labour was embroiled in the "cash for wigs" affair, which erupted when the Lord Chancellor invited lawyers to make financial contributions to party funds at a specially arranged dinner in London.

Opposition politicians and solicitors united yesterday to accuse the Lord Chancellor, a QC himself, of "looking after his own" by deciding not to cut QCs' legal aid rates in criminal trials.

Franklin Sinclair, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said: "He may have acted above board [with regard to the dinner] ... but every time he does someone a favour it puts him in a difficult position."

Since Labour was elected in 1997 ministers have said they want to cut the rates paid to top QCs working in criminal and family law ­ who earn up to £300,000 a year ­ to bring them into line with hospital consultants and headteachers.

The Conservatives said the decision to exclude QCs in criminal cases from a direct cut was evidence of how untrustworthy the Government had become. Edward Garnier QC, the shadow Attorney General, said he suspected Labour politicians of having a hidden agenda. And he warned lawyers to "watch them like collective hawks" because he claimed the ultimate aim was to cut public funds for the law.

Three years ago Lord Irvine began a high-profile media campaign to present himself as a politician who would bear down heavily on legal aid barristers' fees by revealing the names of the highest-paid publicly funded lawyers.In July last year he promised to cut fees by 10 per cent from 1 December, but the deadline passed and the Government then announced that the cut to family barristers' fees would be only 5 per cent.

The Lord Chancellor's Department said it had reached its decision after lengthy negotiations with the Bar.

A spokesman said a new scheme for paying criminal barristers would not come into force until July when junior barristers in criminal cases would have their legal aid rates cut by just 5 per cent. But the spokesman said QCs would carry on being subject to the same "prescriptive criteria" on the use of advocates in the Crown Court which he said had led to a reduction of 53 per cent in the number of cases where barristers had been authorised to appear.

As recently as last week, however, the judge in the Afghan plane hijack case criticised the cost to the taxpayer of the 27 barristers involved in the trial.

The departmental spokesman said action to cut the legal aid bill in high-cost criminal cases was being considered separately from July's "graduated fee scheme", which will apply to all other criminal trials of 25 days or fewer.