Very high cost cases (VHCCs) are those estimated to last more than 40 days at trial, or 25 days if involving complicated combinations of factors. Last year there were about 400 defendants funded by legal aid in 100 VHCC criminal cases at a total cost of Â£100 million. Defence teams are typically paid around Â£400,000 for such cases but costs in some, such as the Jubilee Line Fraud case, have run into several millions.
In an attempt to ensure best quality and value for the most expensive criminal legal aid cases, the Legal Services Commission established a very high cost cases (crime) panel due to run till July 2009. â€œWe believe this panel offers real benefits to those signed up to it. They have the first opportunity to take on work worth in excess of Â£100m a year.â€ But, according to the â€˜Guardianâ€™, of the 2300 barristers invited to join only about 100 barristers and three QCs have so far signed up.
The sticking point would seem to be the capped fees offered. Under the new scheme, for preparation work a QCâ€™s fees will range from Â£91 to Â£145 an hour, and for time spent in court a QC will get Â£476 a day. For a leading junior, the range is Â£79 to Â£127 an hour, with Â£390 a day for time spent in court. A junior acting alone will receive between Â£70 and Â£100 an hour, with Â£285 a day for time spent in court.
Peter Lodder, QC, senior criminal barrister and Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, is reported in â€˜The Timesâ€™ as condemning â€œthese derisory levels of incomeâ€¦hourly rates do not encourage efficiencyâ€¦a system geared to an efficient dispatch of justice should have an effective payment system.â€ At the heart of the dispute, he said, was the â€œdriving down of fees to a level at which properly qualified people who have invested many years of training are simply not being properly remuneratedâ€. As reported in the â€˜Guardianâ€™, he said that the full impact of the Barâ€™s boycott had not yet been felt but that the first serious trials requiring QCs were due to reach court in the new year.
The first setback for the LSC has already occurred,. The 17-year-old accused of shooting dead schoolboy Rhys Jones was left without a QC a month before the trial was due to start and his solicitor was working for free. The problem occurred because the Legal Services Commission initially insisted that the defendantâ€™s lawyers worked for a fixed fee, but they have now made an exception and reverted to the old pay structure. The LSCâ€™s director of high cost case contracting has acknowledged difficulties with forthcoming large trials, and there may have to be other exceptions in future.