I have not written this blog. This comes from Ian West from the frozen North. I have known Ian for many years due to our shared “interest” in remuneration issues. He has always been committed to achieving fair and appropriate remuneration.
The views expressed in this piece are Ian’s views. His Twitter name is at the end of this blog so feel free to direct any comments his way! As they are not my views I should point out that I do not share the same view as Ian over some of the issues he raises. He has, however, asked me to host this blog and I am only too happy to do so. Remuneration and the mechanisms of remuneration are important issues. As ever there is a need for wide debate.
The new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme: To the Manor Born?
This week, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published its consultation paper ‘Reforming the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme’. The scheme has been being worked on by representatives of the Bar Council, the CBA, and (until they walked out in protest) the Law Society with officials from the MoJ for many months. Here is the link to the consultation paper: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/reforming-the-advocates-graduated-fee-scheme/ If you are a criminal barrister or solicitor advocate you need to read it and respond. What follows are my personal, and, of necessity, preliminary views.
The structure of the scheme, in summary, is to largely do away with the proxies of pages of prosecution evidence (PPE) and prosecution witnesses (PW) as components of the graduated fee, and instead to attempt to reflect the work needed to be done on a case by replacing the current 11 offence codes, A – K, with 16 new categories, 1 (homicide) to 15 (regulatory offences) plus a ‘residual’ category 16 (‘standard cases’). Categories 1 – 15 would have within them, sub-categories to reflect different levels of complexity/seriousness within the offence type. Thus, there would be 42 separate levels of ‘basic fee’. In addition, there would be separate fees for up to six ancilliary hearings – PTPH, sentence, etc – and the second day of trial would be paid, unlike at present. So far so good. The architecture will, I am sure, get high marks from all advocates. The scheme is said to be ‘cost neutral’ from a baseline of 2014-15 spend, so the objective is said to be to make advocates’ pay ‘fairer’. There is no mechanism for review and upgrading of fees, but that flaw is not the main object of this piece.
The devil is in the detail – the ‘numbers in the boxes’. Here, I regret to say, the scheme fails the vast majority of criminal advocates – in fact, all but that 10% of them who are QCs. The silks will get a pay rise – a substantial one – whilst juniors at all levels will struggle to maintain parity, and most will suffer (yet another) pay cut. The MoJ has done some worked examples in Annex 3 which show this, but you will probably have done some from your own practice. Two questions, therefore. How, and Why?
The ‘How’ is simple – see the ‘indicative fee table’ in Annex 2. Every fee for a QC – basic and refresher – is twice that of a junior doing the same case, whether that junior is doing the case him or herself, or is being led by the QC – so a 100% ‘silk uplift’. This is, for QCs, a marked improvement on the tables in the current AGFS, where the silk uplift is either 75% or 80%, depending on the disposal – trial/plea/crack. And, of course, the higher basic and refresher fees are paid in the ‘top’ categories, such as 1 (homicide) and 2 (terrorism) i.e. the cases that QCs generally do. So, for silks, ‘double-bubble’!
Why? Juniors may well ask. The cynical ones, including the 90% of juniors who will never be QCs, may answer: because the scheme was, by and large, negotiated on behalf of the bar by… wait for it, QCs. So what have the bar’s leaders said about the scheme? Andrew Langdon, Bar Chair (and criminal silk) said: “These proposals… go a considerable way towards restoring career progression…” The Circuit Leaders, and former leaders, issued a statement saying that the scheme “..promotes quality in advocacy and encourages talented young people to practice in criminal law.”
This sounds to some juniors (and the Law Society, which has attacked the proposals) like special pleading – “We QCs need to be paid more, and you less, in order to encourage you to become QCs yourselves.” But are young barristers going to be attracted into criminal work which for most will be a diet of ‘standard cases’ by the prospect of ‘jam tomorrow’ – the chance that they might one day reach the Elysian fields of silk? One suspects not. So is it all bad news for juniors? No, some cases will pay better, and the separate fee for the second day of trials, and ancillary hearings is a welcome step.
But the question remains why should the scheme, which presents the opportunity to redistribute the legal aid ‘pot’ fairly to all criminal advocates, be skewed towards silks? Simple economics would say that it does not. Is there a shortage of silks? No – the relative scarcity of silk certificates means that there are more silks than there is work for some of them. Is there a shortage of applicants for silk? No – the competition is fierce. The fact is, that on a supply and demand analysis – which a conservative government might find compelling – there is absolutely no justification for a silk uplift of anywhere near the 100% proposed. If it were reduced to 25%, or even nil, and the higher pay would simply attach to the seriousness of the case, and not the category of advocate, there would still be more criminal silks than we need, and good and busy juniors would still apply for silk to do the better work, and for the lifestyle change. And, of course, it would allow the money to be spread more equitably for everyone.
So my verdict on the scheme is that the scheme is, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. But it is, as the fees tables presently stand, seriously unfair to juniors, i.e. the vast majority of the bar, and unduly, and unnecessarily, favourable to QCs. I have no doubt that my views, thus expressed, will attract the accusation that I am being divisive. But who is doing the division – the ones who designed the scheme and feathered their own nests, or the ones who complain about it?
Ian West, Fountain Chambers, Middlesbrough.
Follow me on Twitter: @ianswest.