UK Family Law Reform

Free information index

Barristers in family cases face big cut in fees

Frances Gibb, Legal Editor

Ministers are preparing a fresh onslaught on barristers’ legal aid fees that will involve a huge cut in their pay rates for family and children’s cases.

In an attempt to save £12 million over two years, ministers want a 15 per cent cut for advocacy fees in family court cases. The move comes as battle lines are drawn this week over the future of the entire £2 billion legal aid scheme.

Tomorrow the Bar launches its own offensive over the future of legal aid – with a warning that the system is in crisis and the quality of justice at risk.

Tim Dutton, QC, chairman of the Bar, said: “We may be about to face the irreversible consequences of the erosion of legal aid, brought about by reductions in funding of frontline services by Government.”

The Bar Council, which represents nearly 15,000 barristers in England and Wales, will announce its proposals in a paper before an all-party meeting of MPs tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Legal Services Commission, which runs the legal aid scheme, has just released figures to show how much barristers are earning from legal aid work.

Crispin Passmore, the commission’s policy director for civil legal aid, said that the sum spent on barristers’ fees since 2003-04 had risen from £71 million to nearly £100 million.

The number of barristers earning more than £100,000 from family legal aid work had gone up by 14 per cent in the 12 months between mid2005 and mid2006, he added.

“The average annual earnings from family legal aid work is £140,000 – and that doesn’t include any privately paid work they might do. So we are not talking about the minimum wage.”

In a second blow, the commission is preparing to decide this autumn on new fees per whole family case, to bring barristers down to the same pay level as solicitors. The aim was to make total savings of £19 million between 2008 and 2011, said Mr Passmore.

He added that barristers had won a 4 per cent pay rise from the then Lord Chancellor in 2004 after anecdotal evidence that they would quit family legal aid work without that increase. The proposals come as spending from the legal aid budget on child care cases was found to have risen by 24 per cent between mid2003 and mid2004. The average cost of children’s care cases had gone up by 20 per cent and by 11 per cent for contact cases.

But the Bar’s paper, which seeks to dispel “the myth of the fat cat barristers”, quotes judges expressing concern about the low rates of pay in family cases. An appeal judge, Lord Justice Wall, said: “Lawyers are simply not doing publicly funded children work because they can’t make a living out of it.”

Carolyn Regan, chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, said: “We spend £2 billion a year on legal aid, of which a substantial proportion is on family work.” The commission had a duty, she said, to ensure that the public had the best access to legal services – and good value for money.

Join us in campaigning for equality and justice.