Legal Aid shake-up to cut earnings of top QCs

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The Independent Online

A radical shake-up of the Legal Aid system in England and Wales would stop barristers earning £1m a year from defending cases in court, the head of a government review said yesterday.

Unreasonable fees, said Lord Carter of Coles, would be consigned to the past under proposals to cut £100m from the criminal Legal Aid budget. But more barristers might be better off as the changes eventually led to a fairer division of public funds.

Launching his 200-page review, Lord Carter said: "We would like to see the end of the £1m a year criminal defence barrister. To earn that amount of money I think you would have to do four weeks' work in one week."

He added: "The existing system does permit people to make unreasonably large amounts of money. We believe the new system can actually find ways to constrain that."

But figures in the document showed barristers with between one and 15 years' experience would actually see an increase in earnings.

Barristers with between five and 10 years at the Bar could enjoy a 20 per cent rise in payments, it indicated.

Only QCs with 15 years or more under their belts - the elite top 10 per cent of the profession - would see a fall in payments, of 3 per cent. It also predicted that potential gross earnings for a QC would be £196,000 a year.

Figures published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs last year identified Jim Sturman, QC, who represented Harold Shipman's family at the killer doctor's inquest, as the highest-paid criminal Legal Aid lawyer, with earnings of £1,180,000 from the public purse in 2004-05. But he confirmed his proposals would not lead to a fall in the overall Legal Aid budget.

Legal Aid currently costs £2.1bn a year, or £100 for every taxpayer in the country. About 60 per cent currently goes on criminal work and the remainder on civil and family cases.

Lord Carter said his proposals would switch about 5 per cent from criminal work to the other categories. He said he hoped his negotiations with the Bar had secured "agreement on the way forward".

But Bar Council chairman Stephen Hockman, QC, said: "I don't think that we feel we have a deal. But it is something which is worthy of discussion."

Kevin Martin, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, said: "We need a system that is financially sustainable in the long term, and Lord Carter's proposals, if properly implemented, could offer that. But more work is needed to develop these untested proposals."

However, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group expressed concern that Lord Carter's proposals will lead to a reduction in the quality of service available to clients.

Director Richard Miller said, "Fixed fees might work in a "steady state" environment. The criminal justice system is not, and should not be, in a steady state. We believe that Lord Carter's premise underpinning his proposals for the criminal Legal Aid system is dependent on a precondition that cannot be met.

"The probable outcome of using fixed fees within a wider system that is not fixed is a serious reduction in the quality of service to clients."