Justice minister Lord Faulks has sent a public message of support for the cab rank rule amidst ongoing debate about its value.
Faulks was questioned by peers during a debate on the future of the bar in the House of Lords on Thursday.
The Bar Standards Board has asked for evidence on the use of the cab rank rule after the oversight regulator suggested it may be redundant.
Faulks, a barrister and QC, told the house the cab rank rule remains a ‘cardinal principle’ of the bar.
He added: ‘Of course, it is subject to exceptions, but as a principle it is very important and must be respected in the way that legal services are provided.’
The Law Society last week said the cab rank rule is seldom invoked and of limited operational value.
Its response to the BSB explained that solicitors are unlikely to wish to press barristers to do work which is ‘unpalatable’, while are likely to want to accept work for commercial reasons.
A report from former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Bill Jeffrey last year concluded the criminal advocacy market was not operating competitively or in such a way as to optimise quality.
Faulks said the government is anxious to ensure that defendants are aware of the choices available to them in representation, and he called on professional bodies to look at this issue.
The minister accepted fees have fallen in real terms and that compared with other opportunities in the legal sector they remain ‘extremely modest’.
In 2013-14, mean fee payments for barristers doing publicly funded legal aid work was £70,200, including VAT and disbursements, and the median was £57,400. In the last financial year, 18% of advocates received less than £10,000, while 25% received more than £100,000.
Faulks said it was important the public appreciates the nature of payments to advocates and that the government is committed to publishing regular reports on fee payments. But he denied the government was to blame for the public getting a misleading picture of fees.
He added: ‘I know how irritating it can be for information that is only partially accurate about barristers’ fees to be published, which can give a rather misleading picture of what are relatively modest earnings for most barristers.
‘I have conveyed that to officials, who confirm that, in fact, much of the information is published as a result of freedom of information requests by journalists who are not, of course, terribly interested in providing a full and accurate picture, including the facts that there are chambers’ expenses and clerks’ fees.’