Barristers have steadily received an increased proportion of the overall criminal and family legal aid spend over the last five years, while the percentage paid to solicitors has fallen, statistics have shown.
Figures produced by legal aid minister Vera Baird ? in response to a written Parliamentary question ? revealed that in 2001/02 barristers doing publicly funded criminal work received 27% of the ?982 million spent overall; by 2005/06 that percentage had increased to 31% of the near ?1.2 million outlay.
The figures for family legal aid expenditure revealed a similar situation, with a 4% rise in the proportion of fees going to the bar over the same period. While solicitors received by far the greater sums in both areas, the proportions paid to them fell accordingly.
Practitioners suggested this could be caused by spending on very high-cost cases (VHCCs) in criminal matters, and an increase in the amount of public law children work ? both more frequently involve the instruction of counsel.
Richard Miller, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, added that there were fewer controls over what barristers could charge. ?This cannot be allowed to continue if the Legal Services Commission (LSC) wants to have proper control of its budget,? he said.
Mr Miller added that part of the Carter reforms would go some way to resolve the issue.
Bar Council chairman Geoffrey Vos QC claimed the figures involved complicated dynamics. But he added: ?I?m quite sure there?s no disproportionate charge in the rates of pay, as solicitors have always been paid on hourly rates, whereas the bar ? since 1997 ? has been paid on fixed fees. The only reason the bar is paid more is due to volume or complexity of the cases.?
An LSC spokesman said it did not control the proportion of the legal aid fund that went to solicitors or barristers ? except in the case of VHCCs ? and it was the solicitor?s decision to instruct counsel.
?The small fluctuations over time in the proportion of expenditure in these cases going to solicitors or barristers will be due to changes in case mix and unit prices,? he added.