'Fat cat' lawyers face censure

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"Fat cat" lawyers' fees are deterring members of the public from seeking justice in the courts, the Lord Chancellor claimed yesterday.

Dismissing claims that it was the steep rises in court fees, introduced in January, that were were likely to prevent people on low or medium incomes from seeking legal redress for their problems, Lord Irvine of Laird said: "People in glass houses should not throw stones. Fat cat lawyers railing at the iniquity of court fees do not attract the sympathy of the public".

To argue that court fees acted as a deterrent was rather like arguing that people were deterred from buying new motor cars by increases in vehicle excise duty, he said, adding: "The main deterrent on going to law is not court fees but the price at which lawyers value their own services and, so far, have succeeded in charging." Some QCs earn as much as a million pounds each year.

The Lord Chancellor was responding in the Lords to a question from Lord Ackner, the former law lord, as to what the Government proposed to do to protect the less well off from the impact of the court fees.

Increases in the fees, introduced by the Tory government, would not prevent people of modest means from going to court, he said in the debate. Reversal of the changes would cost pounds 257m a year which would then have to be found from savings elsewhere in his department's budget. "My present judgment is that there is nothing wrong with the general principle that those who can afford to do so should pay a fair fee for the use of the court," he said.

However, Lord Irvine also said he would consider a "restructuring" of the fees in the context of the current review of civil justice and legal aid.