The game's up, m'learned friend

Barristers earning 'unjustifiably' high fees had better watch out. Government minister David Lock is on their case and armed with the passion of a true believer
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The Independent Online

There is more than a hint of Christian socialism about the way David Lock has chosen to tackle the "unjustifiable" fees paid to some barristers.

The recently appointed minister at the Lord Chancellor's Department, who talks about "substantial public disquiet" over fees and the need to bring criminal defence barristers in line with teachers and doctors, once toyed with the idea of becoming a monk.

Like Tony Blair, who also considered joining the church, Mr Lock ended up rejecting a career in religion. But this was only after the Kidderminster MP spent a year with a lay community at a Benedictine monastery in Worth, Sussex, where he says he became "interested in the ideas of monastic life".

Mr Lock is now committed to finding a fairer pay structure for criminal and family barristers whose wages are paid by the state. A minister in charge of the legal aid budget, who once seriously thought about giving up all material wealth, must worry the crime QCs who live off an annual income of £300,000 from the public purse.

After Easter the Lord Chancellor's Department will publish proposals, based on extensive research, which will use the same principles which determine how much the state pays doctors and teachers.

Mr Lock, who replaced Keith Vaz as a minister at the Lord Chancellor's Department in the summer, says barristers' fees must now be able to stand a comparison with salaries paid to "surgeons doing life-threatening operations and some of our senior teachers who are running some of our largest comprehensive schools in tough environments under enormous stress".

While the monk in Mr Lock may worry some lawyers, his experience as a "coal face" barrister will put the fear of God into others. Mr Lock started his career at the Bar as a criminal and general common law barrister before eventually specialising in insolvency work at the Birmingham Bar. He knows from his own observations the difference between earning a fair wage from the law and milking the legal aid system for all its worth.

His experience also tells him that most "criminal barristers are dedicated and often do very stressful jobs". And he admits that fees for prosecution barristers may first go up to end the disparity between defence and prosecution barristers pay, but the overall aim will be to bring down legal aid fees paid to criminal practitioners.

"There are public sector comparisons," says Mr Lock, "and we must make sure that the amounts we pay results in an income which can stand against the amounts paid in other areas."

The new package, based on the existing graduated fees system for short criminal trials, will include Government estimates as to what kind of pensions and other benefits barristers would be entitled if they received salaries from the state. The figures will also include a proportion for chambers expenses - something that doctors and teachers do not have to worry about.

While barristers' pay is facing a tough examination by the Government, proposals to reform the legal aid system and introduce a new network of legal advice centres has brought it into sharp conflict with solicitors. Again, it is David Lock who is leading the Government's charge.

An unrelenting whistle-stop tour of new advice centres around the country is testament to his political and physical stamina - in 1998, a year after first being elected to Parliament, he ran the London Marathon.

And Mr Lock is plain about what needs to be done: "Despite the good efforts of the many professionals and volunteers, too many people suffer because they cannot get advice. This situation has arisen because of the fragmented, unco-ordinated nature of the funding of legal services."

The Government estimates that £1bn of public money is spent on legal services. This money comes from local authorities, the Legal Aid Board, central government departments, and the National Lottery Charities Board.

A lot of this money is to be committed to the new Legal Services Community which is being rolled out in stages starting on 3 April. Despite efforts by Mr Lock, his predecessor, Keith Vaz, and the Lord Chancellor himself, the emergence of this new legal landscape has failed to capture the public's interest. In a bid to take the message to the country, the Government has appointed a number of Community Legal Services "champions" to raise its profile.

The recruitment drive began last summer with the appointment of Esther Ranzen who in a number of staged photo opportunities posed with Lord Irvine in the hope that the reflected media appeal might rub off on the Legal Services Community. That hasn't happened.

So at the beginning of the month Cherie Booth hosted a reception at Number 10 for an extended list of champions whose number now include, Jenni Murray, presenter of Radio 4's Woman's Hour, and Rachel Anderson, the football agent who won her case against the Professional Footballers' Association for sex discrimination when it excluded her from its all-male awards dinner. Others "champions" are Rodney Bickerstaffe, the general secretary of Unison, and David Brown, the chairman of Motorola.

Says Mr Lock: "Public recognition is very important to the aims of the CLS, and that is why we have recruited a number of people to be CLS Champions."

It is also hoped that the new CLS will give real meaning to the phrase "joined up" legal services. Says Mr Lock: "Already over 25 per cent of the population of England and Wales are covered by Community Legal Service Partnerships, and we are looking to rapidly extend this coverage over the next year."

But the Law Society has warned the Government that its new legal franchises, individual contracts between law firms and the CLS Commission (which replaces the Legal Aid Board), will actually limit the coverage of legal services by reducing the number of legal aid outlets from 11,000 to 5,000. The Government counters that the gap will be filled by other providers, such as Citizen Advice Bureaux and new law centres.

Solicitors, says Mr Lock, are also coming round to his way of thinking. The more solicitors he has met during his community legal services roadshows, the more the message is getting through, he claims.

Perhaps one reason lawyers are prepared to listen to Mr Lock is that he is not the typical barrister from the London Bar.

After graduating with a 2:1 in theology from Cambridge, Mr Lock joined GEC is a management trainee. He then took a diploma in law at the Polytechnic of Central London, now Westminster University, and sat his Bar finals before doing his pupillage in London at the chambers of Anthony Scrivener QC in 1985. But two years later he left London for Birmingham to help his wife develop her career as a doctor. For four years he practised crime and general common law in Birmingham before specialising in housing and insolvency work.

In 1997 he was elected MP for Wyre Forest (Kidderminster) and gave up practising as a barrister at Birmingham chambers 7 Fountain Court (which merged with number 2 Fountain Court to become St Philip's to become the largest in the country). But he hasn't given up his individual style.

In another parallel with Tony Blair, Mr Lock shares the Prime Minister's "eclectic" musical taste which includes a rich mix of Seventies rock. "It must have something to do with growing up in Woking, Surrey, just down the road from Paul Weller [The Jam] and Rick Parfitt [Status Quo]."