We need to reform the legal services

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The Independent Online

To deplore the expense of the Bloody Sunday inquiry – which could cost taxpayers as much as £100m by the time it is completed – is to miss the point.

To deplore the expense of the Bloody Sunday inquiry – which could cost taxpayers as much as £100m by the time it is completed – is to miss the point. If a public inquiry is to be held, then no party to it should be expected to make do with legal representation on the cheap. A cut-price inquiry would lack any public credibility and fail to serve the purpose for which it was set up.

The real question, which applies not just to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, but extends to public inquiries in general and legal proceedings across the board is how much the legal representation should cost. And here it is hard to escape the impression that we, the taxpayers, are being ripped off good and proper, and that the Prime Minister, who pledged himself to thoroughgoing reform of the legal profession in his second term, is not making good on his promise.

The best practitioners in every profession – be it teaching, medicine, or the law – deserve the highest rewards. No one should have any qualms about the principle of payment for excellence. But the size of those rewards should be determined so far as possible by the market, and this is patently not happening at present. The law – as openly acknowledged by ministers before the last election – is one of the last bastions of restrictive practices, and the Bar is the most restrictive of all.

The effort to break the Bar's monopoly on advocacy in the higher courts has had less impact than had been hoped – or appeared likely, given the ferocity of the barristers' resistance at the time. Almost 10 years on, most higher court litigants must still engage two lawyers; few solicitors plead cases in the higher courts and the Bar – from entry to advancement – is still permeated with the ethos of the old-school tie.

If the legal profession will not bring its practices into the modern world, then the Government must do it on the taxpayers' behalf. It is high time that ministers instituted their promised review and forced open competition for legal services beyond the timid licensing of conveyancers. And they must not shrink from displeasing their barrister friends. The structure of the Bar – a shortage of good barristers and the domination of the profession by a few "top" names who can set their own price – is a large part of the reason why litigation and public inquiries cost so much. If the cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry fuels pressure for change, the money may not have been spent in vain.

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