Top barristers' pay should be halved, says leading QC

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The Independent Online

Top criminal barristers should have their pay cut by half to bring their earnings into line with leading surgeons, one of Britain's most successful lawyers has suggested.

Michael Mansfield QC, who earlier this month represented a couple freed from prison after their convictions for killing a three-year-old child were quashed, said the present system for rewarding barristers was not giving the public value for money.

He would be prepared to see his own earnings slashed by half, from £300,000 a year to £150,000, under a more publicly accountable system for paying barristers out of legal aid funds, he said.

Mr Mansfield's comments will add to the debate about how much the highest paid workers in the public sector should earn. Some GPs get as much as £250,000 a year, it emerged last week.

Under Mr Mansfield's proposals, leading barristers would be set a regulated salary bringing their pay into line with senior surgeons working for the NHS. A barrister became the first to earn £1m a year out of legal aid for criminal cases last year.

Mr Mansfield said: "The Bar has not been sufficiently transparent. The public thinks we are all Dickensian and that all we are interested in is fees and earning more money. The fee system is not a sensible approach. How do you value someone's time - £25 an hour, £200 an hour? I don't know.

"What should be happening is that we should be salaried," he said. "The public should know what I get paid - it may be £80,000 a year; it may be £150,000 a year but at least the public will know that it's a salary and that is the job."

The independent legal directories all identify Mr Mansfield as one of the top five criminal barristers in the country. His impressive caseload has also helped to make him a household name. He appeared last week for Angela and Ian Gay who had their convictions for killing a three-year- old boy with a lethal dose of salt overturned in the Court of Appeal.

He has also acted for the family of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence as well as Jill Dando's killer, Barry George. And he has been instructed by Mohamed al Fayed to represent him at the inquest into the death of his son, Dodi.

"If I am in the public domain, the public is entitled to know how much I get paid. The vagaries of fee determinations lead to misleading headlines. Yes, there are fat-cat lawyers, but whenever they publish the figures I am not actually in the top 20, 30 or 40. I'm not in that bracket. And, yes, I have earned a good living. I don't deny that. And I don't see why I shouldn't because I work extremely hard and do some cases for nothing."

Mr Mansfield is one of the country's few senior barristers who is open about his earnings, which he says are around £300,000 a year. But he is prepared for that figure to be halved. "Yes, I would have to take a pay cut. I suppose the public would countenance the top earners getting £150,000 or £200,000. I don't think they would tolerate anything much beyond that."

But Mr Mansfield says that, at a time when the criminal justice system is under attack from Labour, it is important that lawyers are not seen as wholly self- serving, with no interest in protecting fundamental principles such as the right to a fair trial.

"Charles Clarke's plan to bring in "non proven" rulings from the Court of Appeal is yet another example of how the Government is trying to circumvent the criminal justice system. What they are saying is, 'we can convict the people we see as guilty'."

The big earners

Highest paid barristers in the Criminal Defence Service, their chambers, date they were called to the Bar, and earnings in 2004-05:

* James Sturman QC (right); 2 Bedford Row; 1982; £1.2m

* Simon Bourne-Arton QC (far right); Park Court, Leeds; 1975; £902,000

* Kalyani Kaul, 187 Fleet Street; 1983; £766,000

* Gilbert Gray QC; 3 Raymond Buildings; 1953; £755,000

* Balbir Singh; Equity Chambers; 1984; £750,000

* Peter Griffiths QC; 2 Bedford Row; 1970; £690,000