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22 MAY 2008

Barristers angry over proposed family legal aid cuts

The Legal Services Commission has angered barristers by announcing this week at a private media briefing that it intends to reduce funding for representation by barristers in family law cases by 15%.

Commenting on the developments, Lucy Theis QC, Chair of the Family Law Bar Association, said: "At a time when senior family judges are publicly raising concerns that the system is creaking at the seams the LSC seem intent on putting it under increasing pressure - children, parents and the administration of the Courts will suffer.

"The removal of a child from his or her natural parents by the State has rightly been described as one of the most draconian orders that can be made. Further cuts will not only reduce those who are willing to undertake this important work but also discourage those from wanting to specialise in this area," she added.

This week Bar Council published a discussion paper, Legal Aid and the Public Interest: Towards an Effective Public Private Partnership, to 'get the debate over the troubled legal aid system back on track'.

The Paper was launched at an All Party Parliamentary Group Meeting in Westminster on Tuesday night and was attended by the legal aid minister, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. The meeting attracted an audience of nearly a hundred and feelings ran high.

Lord Brennan QC chaired the meeting and other speakers included LSC Chair Carolyn Regan, YBC Chair Julia Beer, Tim Dutton QC and Law Society President Andrew Holroyd.

The Discussion Paper is designed as the start of a 'conversation' with stakeholders in the legal aid system, to run between now and the General Election, expected in spring 2010.

It argues that government attempts to conduct a fundamental review of the legal aid system have lost their way, and should be diverted to focus on the most vulnerable and the interests of justice.

Writing in the introduction to the new paper, 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 front-line services by Government.

"Legal aid is worth standing up for not for the sake of lawyers, but in the public interest and in the interests of justice.

"A robust legal aid system serves the goals of the conviction of the guilty and the acquittal of the innocent.

"It is also a tool for tackling social exclusion, and a powerful weapon in favour of the weak, the victim and hard-working families who deserve a fairer deal from the law.

"It is in the interests of justice, because the court system cannot operate effectively without the support of suitably qualified and properly paid solicitors and advocates, with a fundamental duty to the court, and a responsibility to do the right thing in the eyes of the law."

The Discussion Paper argues that 'a vision for the legal aid system is needed, one which sets the right balance between funding and quality, access and empowerment, and the ability for all to enjoy a place in society free from crime or oppression'.

In a detailed speech about the real earnings at the Family and Criminal Bar, Julia Beer, Chairman of the Young Barristers' Committee, demonstrated at the meeting that the earnings of a junior barrister are actually a far cry from the average figure of £140,000 for publicly funded family work which has been reported in the press.

Ms Beer said: "This debate will dispel the myth of the 'fat-cat' barrister, which has been so irresponsibly deployed by Government in recent years to undermine the legal aid system, and deliver substantial and unacceptable cuts in front-line services.

"The plain fact is that most barristers doing legal aid work make very modest sums, equivalent to or less than those earned by other public servants.

"Fees for the junior Bar are now so low that the inevitable consequence will be a drying-up of the talent pool. In an age of increasing student debt there is a real danger that the most talented undergraduates can simply no longer afford to come to the Bar to take on publicly funded work. I have no doubt that this will have irreversible consequences for the operation of the justice system further down the line. In the interests of justice the Government must now stop and consider the long term consequences of the reduction in funding."

Today Lord Hunt of Kings Heath wrote a letter to The Times pointing out that barrister-advocates are paid much more than solicitor family-advocates for the same work. "We want a fairer system, where they are paid the same, regardless of whether the advocate has a background as a solicitor or a barrister," he wrote.

To read the Discussion Paper click here.

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