Issues - profit - Fatcat Lawyers
Barristers and solicitors working on just six criminal trials
cost the taxpayer a quarter of the legal aid budget for the
Crown Court last year, a committee of MPs reported yesterday.
They warned ministers that unless the Government took action
against these high-cost cases, the legal aid budget, now standing
at £1bn, would spiral out of control.
No cases were identified by the Commons Constitutional Affairs
Committee but they are believed to involve complex frauds
and drug-trafficking. In oral and written evidence to the
committee, the Law Society and the Bar agreed very high-cost
criminal cases were the cause of most concern.
The MPs said: "In particular, the professions admitted
that 0.01 per cent of criminal cases (or anecdotally 'half
a dozen a year') were responsible for 25 per cent of expenditure
in the Crown Court."
They added: "A number of reasons were ventured for this,
including the complexity of fraud and multi-party conspiracy
actions and the fact that prosecutors did not conduct a proper
cost-benefit analysis when proffering charges."
The Law Society was particularly critical of the use of QCs
in very high-cost cases. They said: "Fees claimed by
QCs make up a significant proportion of the costs of these
cases. This figure has increased significantly over the past
three years and must be brought under control through a system
of contracting. Whereas the maximum rate for solicitors acting
in very high cost [criminal] cases as set out in regulation
is significantly below private charging rates, there have
been no such controls on the fees paid to QCs."
The Law Society said the Government should set fees for QCs,
so the earnings for those working full time on legal aid are
broadly the same (after practice expenses) as a "top
The committee also warned that the Government's plans to curb
legal-aid spending by reintroducing means-testing were "unworkable"
and could breach the Human Rights Act. Plans by the Department
of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) for means-testing legal aid
were targeting the cheapest cases in the system when they
should be looking at the most expensive, the committee said.
"The department should focus more of its efforts in other
areas, such as reducing expenditure on the most expensive
criminal cases, which consume a disproportionate amount of
the Criminal Defence Service budget."
Alan Beith, the committee chairman, said that although the
MPs agreed defendants who could afford their legal costs should
pay, the DCA's proposals for means tests were likely to be
"Two of the proposed means-testing models would be unworkable
in practice and the other may lead to successful challenges
under the Human Rights Act," said Mr Beith, the Liberal
Democrat MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed. "This will inevitably
lead to delay and more costs, the exact opposite of what the
Government wants to achieve."
The MPs said the DCA had not produced "convincing evidence"
that reintroducing means-testing would lead to substantial
cost savings. MPs believe that delays and further costs would
arise while evidence of income is being obtained and considered.
They also say the problem could be made worse if the number
of unrepresented defendants increased because legal aid was
restricted. The report says this would run counter to other
initiatives designed to improve the efficiency of the criminal
Although the committee agreed with the Government that criminal
legal-aid spending - up 37 per cent, or £500m, since
1997 - is unsustainable and must be controlled, the MPs said
there were better ways of limiting spending on criminal legal
A spokesman for the DCA said: "The process by which people
can be assessed for legal aid exists for civil cases. We are
merely extending that principle to criminal cases and do not
believe it will lead to unnecessary delays. The reintroduction
of the means test alongside the transfer of grant of public
funds to the Legal Services Commission will save up to £70m
for the taxpayer each year."
Ministers had set up a "far-reaching study" on how
best to provide legal help to those who need it most, he added.
"The Fundamental Legal Aid Review is looking at cutting
expenditure and giving value for money in legal-aid spending.