Legal Aid

Legal aid curb on ?1m lawyers 'may shut small firms'

PUBLISHED July 14, 2006

Reforms to the legal aid scheme designed to kill off the "?1 million-a-year barrister" were unveiled yesterday and welcomed as "as good an outcome as available" by barristers' leaders.

But the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association said that Government plans to reorganise spending on publicly-funded legal services would be a "disaster for access to justice", forcing thousands of small firms of solicitors to close.

That was denied by Lord Carter of Coles, whose report on legal aid procurement in England and Wales estimated that about 400 of the 2,700 firms providing criminal defence services would have to merge or shut.

Introducing the results of his year-long review, Lord Carter predicted that his plans would shift five per cent of legal aid spending from criminal to civil and family work.

At present, criminal work swallows up 60 per cent of the existing ?2.1 billion budget, leaving only 40 per cent to help people to enforce their rights. If Lord Carter is successful, civil and family work would receive an extra ?100 million a year.

He believes that switching to a system of fixed fees for "blocks" of work would stop barristers making "unreasonable" amounts of money from legal aid.

"We would like to see the end of the ?1 million-a-year criminal defence barrister," he said. "To earn that amount of money I think you would have to do four weeks' work in one week."

He predicted that top legal aid QCs would receive no more than ?250,000 before tax, for working normal lawyers' hours.

"The existing system does permit people to make unreasonably large amounts of money," he said. "We believe the new system can actually find ways to constrain that."

However, figures in Lord Carter's report show that barristers with between one and 15 years' experience would see an increase in earnings after the reforms. Only QCs with 15 years or more under their belts would see a fall in fees of three per cent, the document suggested. It also predicted that potential gross earnings for a QC would be ?196,000 a year.

In a letter to barristers, Stephen Hockman, QC, the chairman of the Bar, told them they would have to decide whether the Carter proposals were acceptable.

"We can, however, say that we believe that this is as good an outcome as is available, and that the proposals are worthy of very serious consideration," he added.

Although the increases were less than the Bar Council had proposed, it believed that "what is on offer represents the very greatest increases that we are able to secure".

Very few barristers earned as much as ?1 million from legal aid for a single year's work, their leaders insisted.

Both Mr Hockman and Lord Carter stressed that lawyers had not yet reached the "deal" that Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, had been hoping for.

Lord Falconer said he would move immediately to bring in the proposals from as early as next April.