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Bar fury over "cost-cutting" VHCC scheme

2 December 2009

Barristers have reacted angrily to an announcement from the LSC today that one option for 'very high cost' criminal cases would be to extend the limits for the standard graduated fee scheme from cases lasting 40 days to 60 days.

The interim VHCC scheme, introduced in October 2008 after barristers boycotted the original scheme, comes to an end in July next year (see Solicitors Journal, 31 March 2009).

Desmond Browne QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the proposal “drives a coach and horses through two years of patient and careful negotiation to develop a sound advocates’ pay scheme for the most complex terror and murder trials.

“The profession’s anger and dismay at this last-minute change of heart by ministers cannot be exaggerated.

“By looking to impose a short-term, unevaluated, cost-cutting scheme, ministers are guilty of precisely the short-comings flagged up in the National Audit Office report on value for money in [criminal] legal aid.

“Our alternative advocates’ scheme is capable of reflecting the varying characteristics of individual cases, while giving the government control and predictability in the cost to the public purse.”

Paul Mendelle QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, added: “The most serious trials need the most skilled advocates, and that requires a pay scheme that will keep them within the system.

“Today’s announcement will be greeted with intense frustration by all of those who have worked so hard to develop a workable scheme for advocates which reflects the particular character and demands of each case, while assuring cost control and reducing bureaucracy.”

In its consultation paper, the LSC said one option was to maintain the current panel system for advocates, another to introduce individual case contracts but abolish the panel.

A further option would be to extend the current advocate graduated fee scheme to cases of up to 60 days, and pay the rest at 2008 VHCC panel rates.

The LSC said that the first and third options would also be considered for litigators working on VHCCs.

According to LSC figures, there were about 100 VHCCs last year, costing £112m or ten per cent of the criminal legal aid budget.

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