The criminal bar is ‘ruining itself’ by splashing huge sums of money on clerks’ fees and ‘bribing’ solicitors, a senior criminal QC has told the Gazette, as barristers struggle to cope with legal aid cuts and competition.
The silk, who asked not to be identified, said that chambers – which pride themselves on low overheads compared with solicitor firms – could cut costs by 20%.
‘The criminal bar is ruining itself, principally by paying a huge amount of money to clerks and spending large amounts of money entertaining solicitors,’ he said.
Claiming the sums spent entertaining solicitors are ‘quite unbelievable’, he said: ‘It is nothing short of a bribe. If you take a solicitor on an all-expenses day out, you’re not doing it to be a nice chap, but because you want some work.’
Clerks, some of whom earn over £100,000 a year, could be paid less and money could be saved by not renting chambers that are ‘empty for most of the day’.
If the bar ‘got its act in order’, he suggested, barristers could cut overheads by 20%.
His remarks drew a frosty response. ‘Chambers are more than just an office space or a place of work,’ said Tony Cross QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association.
‘They are a college, a place of learning where barristers train each other. We’re not going to produce great judges of the future if we get rid of the chambers system and end up working from our sitting rooms, kitchen tables or from a bland office in the City.’
To thrive, he said, chambers need to generate business – and corporate entertaining is part of that: ‘It is a facet of modern business.’
Clerks and administrators, Cross said, are running ‘sophisticated businesses’ and their fees depend on the size of the operation they are helping to run.
Max Hill QC, past chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the publicly funded criminal bar is becoming more diverse and corporate, cutting its spending on buildings and staff salaries. The days of the 10% clerk are gone and the bar ‘represents very good value for money’, he said.
But he added: ‘Our increased financial efficiency is outweighed by vicious legal aid cuts.’