In the Media

Barrister cleared of misconduct earns ?1m

PUBLISHED June 26, 2007

A barrister once investigated for allegedly telling a client how to concoct an alibi received more than ?1.1 million in criminal legal aid fees last year, figures published yesterday show.

Balbir Singh, 48, head of Equity Chambers in Birmingham, who has never been promoted to the rank of QC, earned more than the nine Queen's Counsel on the list of the 10 highest-paid barristers.

Ten years ago, Mr Singh was cleared of professional misconduct after a television programme falsely accused him of telling a client how to destroy evidence and concoct an alibi.

A Bar Council disciplinary tribunal found that evidence provided by The Cook Report was inconsistent, unreliable and not credible.

The tribunal ruled that recordings had been "deliberately tampered with" and conversations edited to give a false impression.

More than 60 witnesses, including judges and QCs, gave evidence for Mr Singh at the tribunal. He said afterwards that the support he received meant that his workload increased after the hearing.

"Silks" have traditionally been paid more than junior counsel, but it is a mark of Mr Singh's success that he was elected head of chambers over the heads of six more experienced QCs. Fluent in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, he began his career as a legal adviser in the magistrates' courts.

Three QCs - Nigel Lithman, John Rees, and Oliver Blunt - were each listed yesterday as receiving more than ?900,000 last year, while a further five were paid more than ?700,000. Four of the 10 top-earning criminal barristers were from the same chambers, 2 Bedford Row, in London.

The Ministry of Justice, which released the data, stressed that the sums "represent work covering many years for a variety of cases".

The figures are gross amounts from which self-employed barristers must pay VAT, income tax and National Insurance, chambers fees, expenses and pension contributions. Payments fluctuate widely each year and some fees may be recovered from defendants.

The Ministry of Justice also disclosed figures on legal aid paid to firms of solicitors. Tuckers, which has six offices, was the highest paid criminal firm, receiving ?8.5 million in the year from the Criminal Defence Service. Responding yesterday, Tuckers stressed that the figures did not represent the firm's profits. Its accounts demonstrated that the firm "lost money undertaking general crime work in the last financial year", a spokesman said.

In a separate list of community legal service firms, which carrying out non-criminal work, the highest paid was Duncan Lewis solicitors with just under ?7 million. Again, the sums paid to firms may cover work carried out over a period of years.

The legal aid totals paid out to barristers and solicitors' firms were ?1.2 billion for criminal cases and ?620 million for civil cases. Last July the Government announced changes to the system which would mean "the end of ?1 million-a-year criminal defence barristers".

The Legal Services Commission, which runs legal aid, said yesterday that it worked hard to ensure value for money. Carolyn Regan, the chief executive, said: "The highest paid firms worked on more than 130,000 cases in a year, helping thousands of people to protect their rights, often at crisis points in their lives.

"Where appropriate they have ensured access to justice in ways that avoid the time and expense of going to court or that prevent re-offending.

"These highly skilled and dedicated firms, agencies and individuals deliver a range of civil and criminal legal services ranging from providing housing advice to avoiding homelessness to ensuring that people have the basic right to a legal defence when facing criminal charges."