Friday, 17 June 2011

Follow the money

Like in good comedy, timing is everything in politics. The minister responsible for legal aid, Jonathan Djanogly, released the figures for the highest paid legal aid solicitor firms and barristers yesterday. Call us cynical, but this is a sure sign that the delayed bill containing the legal aid cuts is to follow next week.

Publicising the top earners figures as a means of justifying the planned legal aid cuts would be hypocritical in the extreme - not that this is likely to stop some, particularly as the political pressure over the cuts mounts. What should be remembered is that nearly £300m of the total cuts of £350m likely to be announced next week have little bearing on the high-earning people on this list. These cuts instead fall disproportionately on the lower end of civil legal aid work, undertaken by solicitors and not for profit organisations earning far less than the elite few reflected in these figures.

The Bar usually comes in for criticism when these sorts of figures are released as individuals earning high amounts of public money are an easy target for sections of the press. What partners in solicitors firms earn from legal aid is less transparent. Fortunately, there are no barristers earning over one million pounds topping the list to hang a story on. LAG believes this is in large part due to the changes to Very High Cost Cases (VHCC) fees made by the last government. Barristers and solicitor advocates have also taken a 12.5 per cent reduction in Crown Court fees over the last two years.

There remains, though, a striking differential between the amounts being earned by the top criminal barristers as opposed to civil barristers. The lowest earning criminal barrister in the list would come near the top of the civil earnings list. Across all levels of fee income, civil law legal aid barristers generally earn much less than their criminal counterparts. This is a reflection of the number of criminal VHCC and, it has to be said, the more generous fee structure for criminal cases. Only two women feature in the list of top criminal barristers, as opposed to six in the civil list - a sure sign perhaps that most of the money is in criminal work?

The Law Society has called for a cap of a quarter of a million pounds to be imposed on individual earnings from the legal aid fund. LAG doubts that this is something which could be easily implemented. To be even-handed it would be difficult to apply to partners in solicitors firms with a mix of private and legal aid income. Also, as Jonathan Djanogly correctly points out in the letter in which he released the figures, the earnings for barristers are not necessarily calculated over a calendar year, and can include fees for junior counsel, as well as other overheads.

LAG accepts that excellence in advocacy carries a cost which has to be met to ensure equality before the law. However, we do not believe the differential between civil and criminal fees can be justified. If the policy choice boils down to higher fees at the top end of criminal work, against access to justice for the public coping with everyday civil legal problems, criminal barristers and solicitor advocates should be prepared to take a hit in income.

Read the letter and full list of figures here:

Picture: Ministry of Justice, legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly

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