SENIOR QCs who handle high-profile criminal defence work are incandescent with rage at what they see as the strong-arm tactics of the Legal Services Commission, which administers legal aid on behalf of the Government.
The commission has threatened defence barristers with criminal charges unless they distance themselves from what the courts might regard as an anti-competitive agreement.
"That was like a red rag to a bull," one leading barrister said at the weekend. He thought the commission had suddenly realised it would not be able to get enough barristers to sign a new 88-page contract covering so-called very high cost criminal cases by the deadline yesterday.
The new contract offers significantly lower rates of pay for criminal trials lasting more than two months, such as serious drugs cases, big frauds and multi-handed murders.
Pre-trial payments for QCs in most cases originally Pounds 110 an hour have been cut twice to Pounds 91 an hour. Daily rates are now Pounds 68 an hour and half that amount on days when the hearing has to be adjourned for more than oneand-a-half hours through no fault of the barrister.
A senior criminal defence Silk reckoned he would now be paid Pounds 37,000 for a three-month case. But a quarter would go in overheads, leaving him with Pounds 27,750 before tax and a much lower annual income than comparable professionals.
Needless to say, there are lower rates for junior counsel.
The commission aware that about half of all legal aid spending in the Crown Court goes on just 1% of cases clearly thought that barristers would roll over and accept the deal, as they did on a previous occasion. But it's not just the fee cuts that have persuaded so many barristers not to sign. Any solicitor approved by the commission would be able to instruct any available barrister.
The commission would be able to look at the barrister's diary to see if he was free. Someone based in Newcastle could be forced to take a three-month case in Exeter, with no payment for hotels or meals.
Richard Collins, an executive director at the Legal Services Commission, sent two letters to the Chairman of the Bar last Thursday. …