Bar chairman calls for redistribution of costs to tackle legal aid funding crisis

PUBLISHED October 20, 2005

Crime: the ?appalling costs? of only 1% of cases are exhausting up to 50% of total budget

The ?appalling costs of a few long cases? must be reduced and the money redistributed to reverse pay cuts in the fees paid to junior barristers doing the bulk of criminal work, the chairman of the Bar Council told delegates at its annual conference in London last Saturday.

In an attempt to end the increasing hostility between the bar and the government over publicly funded criminal defence rates, Guy Mansfield QC urged barristers to focus their efforts on the review of the legal aid system being carried out by Lord Carter of Coles.

To practitioners considering whether to refuse publicly funded briefs, he said: ?The impact of recent events on the courts has made its mark. The point has been well made that the bar feels undervalued. It is not weak to wait, and to work to make the best of the Carter review.?

Mr Mansfield added: ?The best prospect now for a long-term solution is for individuals to reserve their position and to await the outcome of that review.?

But he warned that if the Carter review failed to come up with something worthwhile the criminal courts ?will face a crisis far beyond anything happening now?.

Mr Mansfield told journalists there was slack that could be redistributed ? 1% of cases take up 50% of the ?2.1 billion legal aid budget ? and it would take only ?30 million to solve the problems.

He said: ?To achieve lasting change and savings, there must also be investment. To deal with crime we need good police work; we need proper resources for the court service, the Crown Prosecution Service, and defence lawyers.?

Mr Mansfield also defended the independence of the judiciary, adding his voice to those concerned at recent political attacks on judges.

He said: ?Let me be clear: Parliament makes law; judges apply it. This simple legal principle is paramount.?

Judicial and legal independence were ?an essential bulwark of freedom?, he suggested, and the hallmark of the UK?s justice system.

Mr Mansfield also criticised controversial plans to extend detention without trial from 14 to 90 days, arguing that ?defendants charged with the most appalling crimes remain entitled to basic rights?.

Addressing issues within the profession, he said the Bar Council had already reformed its structures to strengthen independent regulation, in advance of this week?s White Paper on the future of legal services. He voiced concern at proposals to make the professions pay for the cost of the planned legal services board, and at the office for legal complaints? likely future role.

He said: ?The Bar Council has an excellent record on complaints handling... it is vital that the present good is not lost in the bureaucratic maw.?