LETTER:Legal aid fees and proposed reforms for the Bar

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The Independent Online
From Mr Peter Goldsmith, QC

Sir: Polly Toynbee's "new order" for the court system (18 May) would pose a fundamental threat to the very rights and freedoms that any newspaper which flatters itself with the virtue of independence should seek to defend.

Her article confuses the earnings that senior barristers are reported to make from their work in private practice, principally commercial work, with the rates paid under legal aid. Most of the rates quoted in the article have nothing to do with legal aid.

The facts are these: lawyers' fees in criminal legal aid cases are controlled both by the Government and, where necessary, judicial officers. Barristers do not set out their own fees for legal-aid Crown Court work. They are paid what the Government allows under comprehensive regulations setting out the fees to be paid. The regulations set standard rates, which cover the majority of Crown Court work. For example, the standard fee for all the preparation for, and attendance at, a one-day hearing is pounds 257. In other cases, the fees to be paid are determined by government officials.

Fee claims under pounds 4,000 are vetted by determining officers in the court. These are government officials who work for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which has overall responsibility for the legal aid budget. Fee claims over pounds 4,000 are vetted by regional taxing teams of more experienced determining officers - still government officials - and they can have two bites at reducing lawyers' fees. In both cases, the lawyer can appeal to the taxing masters who have judicial status.

After long analysis and thought, successive and profound policy reviews - the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 among them -have backed the existence of an independent Bar. Far from being resistant to change, the Bar is engaged in a wide-ranging process of self-reform, designed to secure the development of a profession fit for the 21st century. Key reform measures include:

1. A lay-dominated, independent complaints system.

2. A UCAS-style clearing house scheme to make the selection of pupil barristers fair and rational.

3. Broadening access to legal education by allowing more institutions to teach the Bar course.

4. A review to strengthen the Bar's equality code.

5. The liberalisation of the rule about barristers having contact with witnesses.

6. A plan to make it easier for solicitors to transfer to the Bar.

7. An innovative scheme of management training for barristers' chambers to ensure that only the highest standards of customer care are adhered to.

We are also shortly to set out our thinking on working more closely with the wide range of advice agencies that many, including the Bar Council, agree have an absolutely vital role to play in the provision of legal advice and assistance in the coming decade.

Yours sincerely,

PETER GOLDSMITH

Chairman

General Council of the Bar

London, WC1

18 May

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