LEGAL MATTERS : Fees System Must Be Fair to All, Says Minister; Midland Barristers Plan to Strike over Cuts to Legal Aid Payments from October 3. the Birmingham Post Put Some of Their Concerns to Bridget Prentice, Minister for Legal Aid

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Q: Does the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) believe an independent criminal bar remains essential for the administration of justice in the Crown Court?

A: Lord Falconer wants to maintain the independence of the criminal bar. He sees reform of the legal aid system as essential to maintaining both the legal aid system and the independence of the criminal barQ: Most cases tried in the Crown Court last ten days or less. Fees paid to barristers in these cases have not increased since 1997, and inflation means they have been reduced by 25 per cent. Does the DCA accept this is unfair?

A: Fee rates have not risen but since 1997 payments to barristers have gone up by 78 per cent, although there has been little increase in the total number of cases. A lone junior barrister who takes on a oneday Crown Court trial will be paid on average a fee of pounds 650. For a three-day trial this payment rises to more than pounds 1,300. The system does not always work well, but piecemeal changes to rates will not solve that. We have asked Lord Carter to develop proposals to reform the way legal advice and representation is paid forQ: The DCA has announced plans to reduce the fees paid to barristers where the case 'cracks' - because the defendant decides to pleadguilty or the prosecution proceed with less serious charges - by between 10 and 40 per cent. Is this fair?

A: Some of these cases, known as 'cracks or guilties' are currently paid outside the graduated fee scheme, which means that claims are made for specific sums in relation to work undertaken. Such claims have continued to inflate and are now sometimes higher than the fee that would have been paid had the case gone to trial. We have consulted with the Bar to develop a scheme that tackles the problems Q: How will reducing the fees paid to barristers who successfully resolve the case without a Crown Court trial help achieve the Minister's aim of reducing the number of effective Crown Court trials A: The rates for cracks and guilties must bear some relationship to the fees for a contested trial. It would be wrong to provide financial incentives that might encourage barristers to give advice on pleas that are not in the interests of the client Q: Is it reasonable to pay a barrister pounds 46.50 when he has prepared the case for trial but the case cannot proceed and has to be adjourned?

A: The fixed fee is one of many and should not be considered in isolation. …