Barrister dispute 'could hit major trials'

A wrangle over legal aid rates which had threatened to delay the start of the trial of a 17-year-old accused of murdering Rhys Jones could affect scores of other big criminal court cases, it was reported today.

The pay dispute has hit at least five so-called "Very High Cost Cases", including the Rhys Jones murder trial, and could disrupt or delay dozens more unless it is settled quickly, according to The Times.

The problem has arisen because just three QCs in England and Wales have signed up to a panel of lawyers who have agreed to work for a fixed fee on Very High Cost Cases, even though there are on average around 120 of these trials each year.

Barristers are boycotting the panel, set up by the Government's Legal Services Commission (LSC), in protest at the rates of pay offered, which start at £70 an hour for a junior barrister and £91 for a QC.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said it was unlikely that Very High Cost Cases would be delayed because of a lack of suitable barristers.

But Peter Lodder, QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, told The Times that judges may be forced to release defendants if the row is not resolved quickly.

Trials involving defendants held in custody can only be delayed up to 112 days between their committal and trial. Courts have the option of releasing defendants on bail but in serious cases there is a greater risk that they would abscond, he said.

While the Rhys Jones trial was settled after the LSC made an exception and agreed to revert to the old pay structure for the defendant's QC, Mr Lodder said other trials due to start soon were at risk.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the panel, which was established following a competitive tender, was part of "a balanced package of reforms to put the legal aid budget as a whole on a sustainable footing, which was well understood by the Bar".

He said: "Our reforms are about ensuring the long-term sustainability and the future of legal aid. We want to get the best value for money from the system so that we can help as many people as possible within the resources available."

He added that a working group whose members include the Ministry of Justice, the Bar Council and the Law Society had been set up to make proposals for the next Very High Cost Cases scheme.

The group is expected to announce its proposals shortly.