Hundreds of barristers are boycotting new legal aid contracts which must be signed by today, in a move which could leave defendants charged with the most serious crimes, including complex fraud, terrorism and murder, without proper representation.
Barristers say most of the 2,300 chosen for panels to represent defendants in very high cost cases (VHCC) say they will not sign the contract, mainly because the rates are significantly lower than their current pay. Feelings are running so high that one criminal barrister wrote at the weekend to the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, asking him to investigate Richard Collins, an official at the Legal Services Commission, which administers legal aid, for attempting to “blackmail” barristers into signing.
The LSC refused to say how many had signed up. But in a letter last Thursday to the Bar Council, Collins admitted that, four days before the deadline, a “very high proportion” had still to sign.
The letter pointed out that the barristers chosen for the panel had allowed their names to go forward as part of bids for the VHCC contract by solicitors’ firms. It suggested that “some intervening event” must have caused them to change their minds.
Collins referred to meetings of barristers and reports of pressure put on barristers not to sign, which he warned could amount to a criminal offence under anti-cartel competition laws.
Barristers deny that any pressure has been exerted, and say the decision is down to the individual. Hugo Charlton, who asked the Met to investigate, said Collins’ letter could be interpreted as suggesting that barristers who joined a bid would be committing a criminal offence if they did not go on to sign the contract.
Cases covered by the contract are those lasting more than 40 days and some others deemed particularly weighty. The new pay rates would see the daily advocacy fee for a QC drop from £525 to £476, and for a non-QC presenting a case alone from £330 to £285.
Sarah Cleary of Irwin Mitchell, one of the solicitors’ firms which secured a contract, said the LSC decision to set the advocates’ rates “unfeasibly low” could leave her firm, which represents defendants in serious fraud cases, without expert barristers to act for them.
Robin Tolson QC, leader of the western circuit – representing barristers practising in the south and south-west of England – no longer does criminal work himself and stressed that the decision whether to sign was for each individual barrister to take.
“However, my belief is that very few members of the western circuit will sign. When I was last a junior on a fraud trial in 1991 I was paid about £240 per day. The rate for the role I played then is now £128 per day. Now that decision time has arrived … minds have been concentrated and there are few takers.”