On 31 October 2013 the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) sent contract amendment notices to barristers who hold a criminal VHCC contract. Details of the proposed amendments were subsequently published on the Ministry of Justice website.
Under the proposed amendments the Government propose to pay future work on a current case at a rate 30% less than is currently stated in the contract. The Government consulted the Bar Council on amending the contracts and on 18 October the Bar Council submitted its strong objections.
The LAA notice of 31 October states that, “the reduced fees will not apply to cases in which the court has set a trial date before 2 December 2013 and that trial date is on or before 31 March 2014.”
The terms of the contract state that the LAA may amend the contract to give effect to legislative changes made by the Lord Chancellor. When the amendment notices were issued no such legislation had been laid. It is understood that a Statutory Instrument will be laid in Parliament today and will appear on the Parliamentary website.
Barristers who have signed a contract have been informed by the LAA that the amendments will come into effect on 2 December. Barristers would therefore have until 1 December to inform the LAA if they wish to exercise their contractual right to give notice of termination.
The Bar Council has been taking expert legal advice and will continue to do so once it sees the wording of the Statutory Instrument. The Bar Council intends to issue further information to barristers involved in current VHCC contracts to assist them in understanding the proposed amendments and what their options are. This is without prejudice to any other steps that the Bar Council may wish to take in relation to the making of the Order and the scrutiny by Parliament of the Order.
The Bar Council is in ongoing discussions with the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the Bar’s independent regulator, in respect of barristers’ professional obligations under the Code of Conduct. The Bar Council understands that the BSB intends to provide additional guidance to barristers in respect of the Code of Conduct application to this matter prior to the deadline for notice of termination. In the meantime, barristers may always contact the Bar Council’s Ethical Enquiries Helpline on 020 7611 1307.