Don't kill all the lawyers

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The Independent Online
"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," says Shakespeare's rebel Dick the Butcher. So, in effect, did the Independent's seriously misguided article "Time for a new order in the court" (News Analysis, 18 May). Its authors called for an inquisitorial procedure run by career civil servant judges. The police would be given new powers and consumers would regularly have to substitute unqualified advisers for trained lawyers - a wrong-headed idea in an increasingly complex society whose citizens are ever more aware of their rights.

The Bar helps to meet the need for specialist advice and skilled advocates to give true access to justice. Even in countries where there is no legal division between solicitors and barristers, a separate Bar has emerged. Detailed and careful reviews, such as by successive Royal Commissions, have favoured the basic framework of our system.

The article made many unsupported and false claims. The Bar is no longer a male preserve: more than half of new entrants are women. Nor is it any longer only for the rich. There is no truth in the assertion that some barristers charge hundreds of pounds an hour for a consultation and then send "some fresh-faced youth" on the day of the hearing instead.

The principal allegation was of excessive fees for legal aid work. Eight silks were named as high earners and the article quoted rates of fees said to be charged. But this has nothing to do with legal aid. Those QCs specialise almost exclusively in privately paid commercial litigation and libel. Their fees cost the taxpayer nothing.

While disproportionate publicity has been given to fees paid in a small number of exceptionally complex fraud cases, the majority of civil and criminal legal aid practitioners are paid at a surprisingly low rate. Even when the crime is serious (a rape, or major drug dealing, for example) and the accused risks a heavy prison sentence, experienced defence counsel can be paid as little as pounds 36 an hour for preparation and court attendances. These are gross payments, from which barristers must pay all their expenses. Barristers' earnings on legal aid use up a comparatively small percentage of the total legal aid budget.

Attention should instead be focused on the realities behind the Government's Green Paper released last week. The proposals to create "fundholding" solicitors with a budget for legal aid work will lead to a dramatic reduction in the quality of representation available to consumers, and encourage solicitors to take short cuts that could damage the clients.

Our system of justice needs to be improved by sensible and considered reform to make it speedier and cheaper for all. Reducing the role of lawyers to a crude stereotype ignores both the complexity of the problems and the unsatisfactory nature of the Government's proposals.

Peter Goldsmith QC is chairman of the Bar and Christopher Sallon QC is its director of public affairs.