The Bar Council is taking leading counsel’s advice on whether referral fees amount to bribes under the Bribery Act 2010 ahead of possibly promoting an amendment to the legal aid bill to ban them, chairman Peter Lodder QC has revealed.
Mr Lodder said the Bar Council was “surprised and angered” by the decision of the Legal Services Board not to ban referral fees.
He said: “The choice of lawyer should not be influenced by who paid what to whom but should be decided purely on the quality and skills of the individual and their ability to advocate the client’s best interests.
“In our view referral fees are bribes and we have instructed leading counsel to advise us on the impact of the Bribery Act 2010 on these payments. The Prime Minister has indicated support for a ban and we are considering the promotion of suitable amendments when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill reaches its Lords’ stages.”
Recent advice published by the Law Society is that referral fees do not fall foul of the Bribery Act.
Mr Lodder also outlined the Bar Council’s work in its “Prepare for Change” programme, which is designed to provide practitioners with “information and insights into new areas of practice, new ways of working and ideas for practice development in the more liberalised environment for delivering legal services ushered in by the Legal Services Act 2007”.
This includes the likely growth in public access and threatened changes in the procurement of publicly funded services, with an emphasis on direct contracting. “Like it or not (and there are many at the Bar who do not), these changes are affecting the way many barristers work or are likely to do so in the future,” he said.
Part of the programme is continuing work on the ProcureCo model, which gives chambers a corporate vehicle through which they can bid for work. Mr Lodder said oversight of ProcureCo had been restructured into a three-tier structure comprising a strategy group, a trouble-shooting group and ad hoc, issue-specific satellite groups.
As an example of the latter, a local authority contracting group has been established under the leadership of Catharine Otton-Goulder QC to facilitate ways in which the Bar might contract with local authorities.