Backlash forces Bar to drop 'Robin Hood' tax

Robert Verkaik
Tuesday 19 November 2002 01:00

The Bar has abandoned a plan to levy a tax on high-earning barristers to help pay for less well-off lawyers to join the profession.

A backlash by some of the most profitable chambers in the Temple led the Bar to rethink its proposals for ending the dominance of the rich and middle classes among its new membership.

In July a report by Sir Robin Mountfield, a former permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, recommended that barristers contribute 0.25 per cent of gross income, if earning between £100,000 and £250,000, or 0.5 per cent for those earning more than £250,000, towards a scholarship scheme. For a barrister on gross earnings of £100,000, the cost would be £5 a week. Sir Robin said the Bar's competitors – solicitors and accountants – all offered generous packages for training and guaranteed jobs afterwards.

But yesterday, the Bar's chairman, David Bean QC, announced that the Bar Council had rejected the proposed "Robin Hood" charge on higher-earning barristers because it had not received the backing of the whole of the Bar.

It is understood that the big commercial sets of chambers argued that they already paid large sums towards training and were not prepared to subsidise other chambers.

Mr Bean said: "While Mountfield's preferred solution will not, in the event, now be implemented, the debate it sparked has pushed this issue of access to the profession to the top of the Bar's agenda."

He added: "I regard the issue as one of great importance to the future of the Bar and it is vital that a solution is agreed in the next four months."

Instead, a meeting of the Bar Council in London resolved to review the problems associated with the cost of entry to the profession and to bring forward proposals to address the issue by July 2003.

In a motion passed by 78 votes to 1 the Bar Council said it recognised that entry to the profession should be based on merit alone and that able students should not be inhibited by financial constraints from joining the profession.

Last month a survey found that the barristers' profession is still the preserve of the rich and middle classes because they can afford to shoulder debts of up to £30,000.

Law students who cannot afford such heavy financial burdens end up as solicitors or find alternative careers, the report said.

The findings, based on a survey of 100 young barristers on the Western Circuit, support recent claims by Cherie Booth QC, the Prime Minister's wife, that the Bar is excluding students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A second survey published yesterday added further weight to the Bar's concern that financial pressures and a decrease in pupillages could be forcing junior barristers out of the profession and discouraging new entrants.

The survey of 370 junior barristers shows that the main reason young lawyers are leaving the Bar is because of financial difficulties.

Commenting on the survey, Mr Bean said: "Our concerns about the cost of qualification and its impact on excellence and diversity in the profession are well documented and we are actively pursuing a workable solution to meet the concerns of all parties."

He said the Government should "take heed" of the potential impact of funding restrictions on the supply of good advocates to act in cases of public importance.