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Barristers 'exploiting misery' as fees in family law cases rise 25% in 5 years
Barristers have been making millions of extra pounds from the misery of families and children caught up in the family courts, according to new figures released by ministers yesterday.
Fees paid out of taxpayer-funded legal aid to barristers in family court cases have gone up by almost a third in five years and have now reached nearly £100million a year, they showed.
And there have been big increases in claims by barristers for obscure special payments that provide 'uplift' and 'bolt-ons' to their basic charges.
Jack Straw's Ministry of Justice lifted a corner of the blanket of official secrecy that surrounds the family courts to disclose that barristers who appear in them can claim bonuses including bizarre 'court bundle payments'.
These give barristers extra money if there are more than 176 pages to their court papers and extra still if there are over 350 pages. Yet another court bundle payment is paid if a barrister carries over 700 pages of papers.
Court bundle payments alone meant taxpayers were charged an extra £8.6million by barristers last year.
Ministers demanded reforms to the legal aid system to make spending fairer to other lawyers who appear in the family courts, which handle divorce, child custody, child safety and adoption cases.
A consultation document issued by the Ministry said that barristers - traditionally regarded as the elite of the legal profession - are paid between 50 per cent and 75 per cent more than other lawyers in the family courts who do the same work.
The pressure for cutbacks in barristers' fees launched a new row over the family courts which are struggling to cope with the growing impact of family breakdown and which have been mired in controversy over recent years.
Fathers' groups maintain the courts are unfair and biased in favour of mothers - the militant Fathers 4 Justice campaign organised a demonstration this month at the home of equality minister Harriet Harman.
There are also continuing arguments over whether the courts allow too much leeway to social workers over matters like adoption and the safety of children, and deepening concerns over the secrecy that covers all their dealings.
Matt O'Connor of Fathers 4 Justice said: 'You would hope that the professionals involved in the family courts would have a duty of care to the children and parents involved.
'These figures show what appears to be going on is that barristers are taking payments to prolong and complicate cases and deepen the misery of families. It is a lovely gravy train if you are on it.'
The figures released by the Ministry of Justice show that 3,000 barristers who appear as advocates in the family courts last year swallowed nearly a fifth of the £535 million paid in legal aid in such cases.
The bills came to £74.2 million in 2004 and £98.2 million in the financial year that ended this March.
Of this money, 'special issue payments' for supposedly complicated cases accounted for £27 million and 'court bundle payments' for £8.6 million.
Another £5.5 million was paid in 'special preparation fees' for cases in which adjournments lasted for more than four months. Critics say these payments give barristers further reasons to introduce delay.
Justice Minister Lord Hunt said: 'Barristers are paid more than solicitors for the same work in family law. We want a fairer system where all lawyers are paid the same, regardless of whether the advocate has a background as a solicitor or barrister.
'Increases in costs for family law barristers pose a serious threat to other areas of family legal aid. To help protect current client services, better control is needed.'
But the Julia Beer, who represents young barristers at the professional body the Bar Council, said: 'Publicly-funded barristers work incredibly hard to represent some of the most vulnerable members of society.
'They are public servants whose work within the community is vital to the justice system, and who earn very modest sums, equivalent to or less than those earned by other public servants.'
Nick Barnard of Families Need Fathers, the influential pressure group that steers clear of militant demonstrations, said: 'The family justice system is often regarded as expensive, unequal and overstretched and nowhere is this truer than in the distribution of legal aid.
'We share Lord Hunt’s concern about the increased expenditure on barristers, and welcome moves to decrease individual expenditure.'
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