Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 14:48 UK

Legal fees row 'could hit trials'

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QC on 'derisory' barrister wages

Major trials could be delayed because barristers are refusing to work for 91 an hour, it has been warned.

Lawyers in England and Wales are boycotting a panel set up to decide pay rates in the most serious court cases.

Criminal Bar Association chairman Peter Lodder QC said at least five trials had already been affected and more could be hit in the coming weeks.

The Ministry of Justice said it would not expect any cases to be delayed for "lack of an appropriate advocate".

Mr Lodder said the rates of pay for Legal Aid work being offered by the Very High Cost Cases (VHCC) panel for preparation work leading up to a trial ranged from minimums of 70 for a junior barrister to 91 for a QC.

He told BBC News: "Most barristers have declined to sign the contract that's been offered. They have done so because the rates of pay on offer are so very low.

"It means that in these high-profile, complex and difficult cases they are being paid a much lower rate than has ever been the case before."

'Not fat cats'

Mr Lodder said a barrister would receive only about half the fee, after deductions such as overheads, expenses and tax.

He told the Times: "You might be better off buying a pair of pliers and working as a plumber. This is our livelihood and most barristers are proud of the work they do.

"And contrary to public conception, these are not all fat cats - few barristers doing these high-profile cases earn a lot of money."

Among the cases reported to have been affected is the trial of a 17-year-old accused of the murder of Rhys Jones in Liverpool.

However, the panel made an exception for the defendant and Merseyside Police and Merseyside CPS say they know of no delay to the case, which is due to begin on 2 October.

Mr Lodder said defendants in serious cases may have to be released on bail because of the row, as they can only be held in custody for a maximum of 112 days between committal and the trial arraignment.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "Solicitors have told the Legal Services Commission that they expect to be able to find counsel of the requisite experience to act in very high cost cases.

"The establishment of the Very High Cost Cases panel... was part of a balanced package of reforms to put the Legal Aid budget as a whole on a sustainable footing, which was well understood by the Bar."


SEE ALSO
Rhys case legal aid row resolved
04 Sep 08 |  Merseyside

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