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The Ministry of Justice has today launched a twelve week consultation setting out proposals for reforming the Family Graduated Fee Scheme for barristers.
The proposals set out in the consultation paper are intended to pave the way for the abolition of the Family Graduated Fees Scheme in April 2010, and the removal of some or all of the differentials in payments between solicitors and barristers conducting family advocacy.
In the interim period, today's consultation proposes to narrow the gap between payments to family barristers and solicitors. The consultation proposals set out different options for reducing the Family Graduated Fees Scheme expenditure.
The consultation comes after the Bar Council published a discussion paper on the same issue to 'get the debate over the troubled legal aid system back on track' just under four weeks ago.
Last month the Legal Services Commission angered barristers by announcing at a private media briefing that it intends to reduce funding for representation by barristers in family law cases by 15%.
The Legal Services Commission had planned to introduce a single harmonised family advocacy scheme for solicitors and barristers in April 2008. However, the implementation of the new scheme was deferred until April 2010, as a condition of the agreement between the Ministry of Justice, the Legal Services Commission and the Law Society, following judgment on the Unified Contract dispute.
The Legal Services Commission will instead be conducting a consultation from September 2008 on proposals for family advocacy payments to both solicitors and barristers from April 2010. These proposals are likely to suggest the restructuring or removal of the Family Graduated Fees Scheme, and removal of some or all of the differentials in payments between solicitors and barristers conducting family advocacy.
According to the Government, expenditure on legal aid barrister family advocacy has risen from £74 million to nearly £100 million in the last five years and currently payments to family barristers form over 10% of the overall civil legal aid budget.
Barristers have reacted to the consultation by saying that the cuts will undermine the family justice system and that some of the most vulnerable children in society will lose out as a result.
Commenting the consultation, Lucy Theis QC, Chair of the Family Law Bar Association, said: The proposed cuts will make it financially unsustainable for experienced family barristers to continue to do this work and this important area of the law will fail to attract talented new entrants. This haemorrhage of talent and experience will be at the expense of the most vulnerable in society. This haemorrhage will be made worse if the Government seeks to implement ill-conceived plans to drive costs down further by the introduction of a single fee and competitive tendering."
The consultation, Reforming the Legal Aid Family Barrister Fee Scheme will run until 10 September 2008. Copies of the consultation are available on the Ministry of Justice website: www.justice.gov.uk/publications/cp1208.htm