Government to tackle referral fees

A statutory ban on referral fees in criminal cases is amongst the new proposals announced by the government at the start of the new legal year.

It follows concerns that fees paid by advocates in exchange for instructions are more prevalent than previously thought. The government believes that the practice is widely abused by law firms who refer clients to advocates with whom they have a financial relationship, which denies clients the choice of barrister.

Following concerns highlighted by Sir Bill Jeffrey in his review of independent criminal advocacy in May 2014, the government is seeking views on a panel scheme of publicly funded criminal defence advocacy; a ban on referral fees; and stronger measures to ensure client choice and prevention of conflicts of interest.

Launching the consultation, Justice Minister Shailesh Vara, said: “This government is determined to ensure we continue to have vibrant and effective advocacy in our courts. That is why we cancelled proposed cuts to criminal legal aid for barristers earlier this year, and today we are going further. The payment of referral fees to secure instruction is unacceptable, which is why we want to change the law in order to tackle this issue. The guiding principle in advising clients on their choice of advocate must always be the competence and experience of the advocate, rather than their willingness to pay a referral fee.”

The Bar Council has welcomed the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) consultation, with its chairman, Alistair MacDonald QC, commenting: “We have been calling for an effective ban on referral fees for some time. We welcome these proposals to preserve and enhance the quality of criminal advocacy. We shall study the proposals very carefully including the proposal to introduce a panel for publicly funded advocacy. Any such panel will need to be independent of government if it is to satisfy the public interest and command the support of the legal profession. The Bar will be constructively engaged in the consultation on these important proposals.”

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