THE BAR Council has secretly admitted that some barristers claim fees which they are not entitled to and that others are claiming "ludicrously high amounts" for their work.
A leaked memo circulated to members of the council's Professional Standards Committee reveals a private view which appears to be at odds with the public position adopted by barristers in response to a crack-down on overcharging by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg.
The memo was written after the Lord Chancellor's Department sent the Bar Council a letter containing the names of 20 barristers who had submitted fees which were later cut by more than 50 per cent. The cases were uncovered during an LCD investigation into overcharging which began in December.
Mark Stobbs, head of the Bar Council's Professional Standards and Legal Services Department, issued the internal memo, which stated: "We also have anecdotal accounts of barristers claiming fees where they do not appear entitled to do so or of silks discovering that their juniors are claiming ludicrously high amounts.
"One barrister sent in a response to the Inland Revenue when they were considering the cash basis of taxation indicating that he always inflated his fees, knowing that they would be taxed down."
A Whitehall source said last night: "This is the first public indication that there is some concern in their own quarters."
In May, Lord Irvine produced a "name and shame" list of legal fat cats who were earning up to pounds 500,000 a year from legal aid.
The list provoked an angry response from Nigel Pascoe QC, chair of the Bar's public affairs committee. "These figures are open to very serious misinterpretation, particularly by those determined to undermine the Bar," he said. "Good barristers resent crude attempts to pillory them, instead of a fair examination of the true position."
In June, the House of Lords began an inquiry into the fees claimed by four top barristers - Michael Mansfield QC, Peter Feinberg QC, Christopher Sallon QC and Richard Henriques QC. The inquiry revealed that in 1995- 96 counsels' fees in crown court and criminal cases were reduced upon taxation by an average of 56 per cent.
Representing the Bar Council, Sydney Kentridge QC told the Law Lords that they had no right to try to peg barristers' earnings to those of other professionals.
He said: "The great majority of the members of the Bar who do legal aid work, work very, very hard for a renumeration which is accepted as reasonable but certainly is not extravagant."
Last night the Bar Council issued a statement saying that it had always been firmly opposed to unethical claims.
It said: "The Bar is a profession that takes pride in its high standards and ethics. Any barrister who deliberately over-claims for legal aid work is bringing the profession into disrepute and we have made clear that such practice is totally unacceptable. We will not let the actions of any such barrister be used to undermine the legal aid system which underpins justice in this country."
The Bar is clearly concerned at the weight of evidence of overcharging and the memo, which was leaked to The Lawyer, reveals that a series of new disciplinary measures are being considered to deal with dishonest barristers.
Mr Stobbs asks committee members for their views on making it a disciplinary offence for barristers to overcharge by more than 50 per cent.
He also suggests that a new rule be introduced requiring barristers to act as "whistleblowers" if they come across misconduct. "At present there is no obligation on a barrister to report the misconduct of a colleague, though we hope that the most serious cases would be reported on moral grounds alone," he writes.
A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said he would not comment on a private document but confirmed that a letter had been sent identifying the 20 overcharging barristers. A similar letter has been sent to the Law Society identifying examples of overcharging by solicitors.
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