Law: Provision for a pension: Jenny Grove reports on current threats to the legal profession's retirement income

LAWYERS' interest in their pension arrangements used to be confined to an annual flip through their Filofax to find their broker's telephone number. Now, at least for judges and barristers, the subject provokes strong feelings.

In the House of Lords last autumn, judges abandoned their traditional reticence on pay and mounted a vehement attack on government plans to alter the terms of their public sector pension scheme. Their concern centred on the Judicial Pensions and Retirement Bill, which aimed to introduce compulsory retirement for judges at 70, with full pension payable after 20 years' service.

The judges were not opposed to the reduction in the retirement age, but to the downgrading in value of the judicial pension. Lord Ackner pointed out that the scheme proposed in 'this mean, penny-pinching Bill' compared unfavourably with those in the United States, Australia and Canada, where judges retired on full pension after 10 years.

Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, warned of 'staleness' with judges 'soldiering on' for 20 years simply to earn their full pension. The former Master of the Rolls Lord Donaldson described the measures as 'disastrous' and likely to reduce the calibre of judges. But despite similar criticism from Lord Hailsham and Lord Lane, the support of 10 Law Lords and 72 peers, the judges were outvoted and the Bill was given Royal Assent in March.

Barristers face less dramatic threats to their retirement income. Self-employed, they tend to set up their own personal pension plans on an individual basis although many do not pay in the maximum allowed by the Inland Revenue. Tradition has encouraged a relaxed approach. Until tax laws were changed in 1960, fees paid to a barrister after retirement were tax-free. For high-flyers accustomed to top tax rates, the resulting windfall was large enough to provide for a comfortable life after stopping work. Some silks managed to retire three times.

'In those days barristers would instruct their clerks not to render fee- notes. Of course if the solicitor really insisted on paying he could, but on the whole he'd be advised to wait until after counsel retired. This suited everybody,' says Anthony Speaight, himself a barrister.

In recent years many members of the Bar have taken judicial appointments and so gained a pension but, as Philip Naughton QC warns, elevation to the bench does not follow as a matter of course. 'It is dangerous to rely on this route, but not everyone has the spare cash to make adequate provision,' he says.

Another barrister says that because too many barristers do in fact rely on winning a judicial post, the appointments system gives too much authority to the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD). 'This is the profound economic reason underlying the LCD's power over our lives and why the whole profession is so orthodox,' he says.

The prospect of securing judicial appointments has become less certain now that the number of practising barristers has burgeoned from 1,900 in 1953 to nearly 7,300, due largely to the growth in criminal and civil legal aid work.

Junior barristers appear conscious of the competition. 'Like actors, barristers are financially paranoid. They always feel their next brief may be their last,' says Dinah Rose, who joined the Bar three-and-a-half years ago. Two years later she went to an independent financial adviser and selected two personal pension schemes.

The Bar Council does not actively promote particular schemes, but if asked will recommend Bowring Financial Services or Allied Dunbar. Barristers' chambers are even less likely to get involved.

Doughty Street Chambers, one of the newer, more go-ahead sets, explored the possibilities of a joint pension plan but came up against the innate individualism of the Bar. 'We discussed it but there were only five people who didn't have a scheme already,' says the chambers' practice manager, Christine Kings.

Senior barristers' clerks, who are paid about 5 per cent of counsel's fees, have employed status and so can enter into executive pension schemes. Their post-retirement receipts were tax-free until the loophole was closed five years ago. They may get contributions from chambers towards a pension, but if so it is usually left to them to decide what to do with the money.

Other staff are less lucky. A broker with experience of the profession says: 'It's rare for chambers to have staff benefits. If somebody keels over and dies the others pass the hat round.'

The broker also believes that barristers' attitudes to their pensions defines one difference between them and solicitors. 'Barristers are so busy doing what they're good at that if you throw a bit of paper in front of them they tend to sign it. Solicitors are more commercial and probably tinker more because they're used to having links with insurance companies.'

True or false, solicitors do appear to take their pensions in their stride. Derek Sloan, a partner with Allen & Overy, says partners make their own arrangements but that the firm runs an occupational final salary scheme, administered by an outside company, for all of its 1,000 employed staff.

The rules of such occupational pension schemes sometimes contain unexpected clauses - discriminating against wives who are more than 10 years younger than their husbands, for instance, or against deathbed marriages - but the firm is well placed to scour the small print. 'Yes, we do pore over the rule book because we also give legal advice to clients on the structure of their pension schemes,' Mr Sloan says.

Smaller firms of solicitors may have group personal pension schemes for staff to which partners contribute.

Firms of all sizes make use of the Solicitors Staff Pension Fund (SSPF), now based in Southend. It was set up by the Law Society in 1930 to deal with the plight of small firms unable to negotiate good terms with insurance companies. The SSPF offers a number of alternatives, and despite what its name implies, has recently introduced a personal pension plan for both solicitors and barristers.

But in recession-hit times small firms and sole practitioners can feel left out in the cold. When fees are not forthcoming, it is no consolation to have the perfect personal pension plan. As Christopher Fradd of the National Association of Sole Practitioners says: 'I know several members who are finding it difficult to keep up payments.'

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