Justice secretary Chris Grayling has promised criminal law barristers that the government will “take measures” to strengthen the Legal Aid Agency’s ban on solicitors demanding referral fees.
In a letter to Nick Lavender QC, outgoing chairman of the Bar Council, Mr Grayling said the government would “take steps to ensure that defendants in criminal cases have an informed and effective choice of the advocate who is to represent them”.
He went on: “The government also proposes to take measures to strengthen the current Legal Aid Agency prohibition on the payment or receipt of referral fees or other inducements for the referral of a defendant to an advocate and to address any potential conflicts of interest.
“As a first step, the LAA will issue a reminder to providers of their requirements under the current contractual ban, and make clear what enforcement action they will take where there is evidence that the ban has been breached.
“At the same time, we would ask you to consider sharing with us any substantive evidence of such fees being paid.”
Mr Grayling added that the government wanted to “make sure that defendants are fully aware of the choices available to them and that only advocates who are sufficiently qualified by their training and experience represent defendants in cases in the Crown Court”.
In a letter to the Lord Chancellor, Mr Lavender referred to a conclusion of the Jeffrey review, published in May last year, that the market for advocacy services could “scarcely be argued to be operating competitively or in such a way as to optimise quality”.
Mr Lavender called for action to “ensure that the best-quality advocates are retained for defendants in criminal cases which are paid for out of public funds through legal aid”.
A spokesman for the Bar Council said Mr Lavender had secured “reassurance” from the Lord Chancellor through his response that only those advocates with sufficient training and expertise would be able to represent defendants in the Crown Court.
Tony Cross, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, launched a campaign last year to ensure that solicitor advocates and barrister competed on a “level playing-field”.
Mr Cross attacked law firms which instructed barristers only if they agreed to hand over a percentage of their fee, and called for a ban on referral fees and fee-sharing.
He added that his “cry was not a cry for war” with higher court advocates, but for a “war against injustice”.