The Daily Mail online is outraged at the £350,000 in legal aid given to Mick and Mairead Philpott. Of course, this is not entirely correct. The Philpotts were not “given” £350,000 like some sort of lottery win. What they were given was a fair trial. What we, the public, got for that expense were safe convictions. Their victims, their children, got justice.
The outrage is sparked by the heinous nature of their crime. They were responsible for killing six children, their own children. Their notoriety was heightened by their lifestyle which was somewhat unconvential. And involved extensive reliance on benefits.
Imagine for a moment that they were innocent. That they had not committed this terrible crime. That they were innocent parents wrongly accused of murdering their own children. As they were at the outset of the trial. It was a trial process that determined they were responsible and needed to be severely punished. And before society reached the stage of punishing them they had to have a trial in which they were properly represented. So that, if they were innocent they would not be wrongly convicted. Money well spent.
Some of the outrage centres on the fact that fatcat lawyers got some of this money. What an incredible surprise that this story appears at a time when the Government want to cut lawyers’ fees even further.
For the nine week trial leading counsel were paid in the region of £57,000 each and junior counsel £26,000. Outrageous. The sort of sums the average hard working taxpayer dreams of taking home in a year, let alone trousering for just nine weeks work.
The first thing that the article does not point out is that the fees are fixed. It is not what the lawyers have concocted as a bill. It is what the Government has set as a fixed payment. It also does not point out that the reason why two counsel represented each defendant was not decided by the lawyers or by the clients. The Philpotts did not demand a QC and a Junior. A Judge decided the case required this level of representation.
So let’s have a look at those fees. I suspect that the fees quoted include VAT, as they usually do when quoted in such stories. For the Junior this would mean the fee was in fact £21,600. But let’s work on the basis that £26,000 is right. The trial lasted for nine weeks. That is 45 days. That is £580 per day.
£580 per day is a lot of money. However I imagine most members of the public would expect barristers to cost more than £580 per day. So let’s break that down a bit more. A working day can reasonably be expected to contain seven hours. In fact many at the Bar realise that a trial of this nature will invlove longer days than this. But let’s stick at seven hours a day. So that £580 per day equates to about £83 per hour. In London the miminum living wage is £9.15 per hour. So those barristers are coining it in. Not quite the £200 per hour Lord Faulks thinks they get paid but they are still squealing all the way to the publicly funded bank with their £83 per hour.
Except that they are not. The £83 per hour is not a wage. It is not personal income. It is a payment to a business. A business with overheads and staff. So that hourly rate is far more like the charge out rates for other professions. So how does the £83 compare?
A quick stroll around the Internet provides some interesting comparisons. In 2002, the Health and Safety executive commissioned a report about the charge out rates of their various professionals in performing their duties. Not a single hourly rate dipped below £100.
In 2010 the average hourly charge out rates for PR executives ranged from £185 for the partner to £98 for an account manager to £65 for the trainee. That’s £65 for a trainee. So the barrister representing someone on a murder charge is on an hourly charge out rate closer to that of the trainee PR employee.
But let us look at a true comparable. In 2011 the average charge out rate for a solicitor in private practice of more than eight years experience was £217. The trainee in the solicitors’ office was charged out at £118. So the barrister on public funds is being paid less than the going rate. The taxpayer is getting a discount.
And what of the QC? We can see the Silk was on a little over double that of the Junior. Based on the calculation above the Silks’ charge out rate is £180 per hour. So that compares with the £217 quoted for the more senior solicitor. However Silks are the best of the best. The top of the profession. Men and women with years of experience, combined with immeasurable talent. The sort of lawyers that would be the partners in the best law firms in the land had they chosen a different career path. The sort of lawyers who have an average charge out rate of £725 per hour.
All of this is very interesting but I am spouting complete nonsense. All of my sums are based on the fee being paid just for the hours taken by the time the trial ran. It takes no account of other court appearances. No account of meeting with the client to discuss the case. No account of the hours and hours of out of court preparation. The real hourly rate for the Junior? Probably half of the £83. £41.50! (Which if the fees quoted do include VAT, is actually £34.50).
The average income, the actual wage, of an airline pilot is £44 per hour.
So what is the junior barrister doing for this money? Playing their part in defending the innocent and convicting the guilty. Doing something which few have the necessary blend of abilities to achieve. Putting in hours and hours of painstaking work.
And just think what sort of things they have to bear witness to. The preparation of this case would not just have involved complex detail. It would not have involved just complicated expert evidence. It would have involved the sort of material most people will go through life without ever having to see. Dealing with a case involving the death of six children is hugely emotionally upsetting. If the reader of this is a non-lawyer I hope you never have to read a post-mortem report. Or see the photographs of the crime scene. The material that the defence lawyer will be exposed to in a case like this is the stuff of nightmares. No hourly rate compensates for that.
And yet we do it. We do it as a necessary part of a fair society. We do it at an incredibly low cost to the Government. This is the scandal. This is the true story of Legal Aid. The story that the Daily Mail would never write. The story that means Gove’s announcement of the implementation of further cuts to even the £140 to spend all night at a police station is the real scandal.
The journalist that wrote this piece and the Lord Chancellor who acts in futherance of such nonsense should hang their heads in shame. I hold my head high.