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Show me the money part five

There was once a barrister, a long time ago, who was busy trying to build up a practice. He had only been going for a year or two, and money was tight. He had not received a grant for his bar finals, and in those days you did not receive money when you undertook pupillage, so he had this much in common with barristers starting off today, namely he was in debt. Therefore the work was vital in order to pay off his debts so that he could move on.

One day he did a case for a new solicitor. It went well. Suddenly a whole flood of work came to him from this particular solicitor. He was spending over half of each working week working on cases just for this particular solicitor. Of course, he was well aware that this strategy was risky. Generally speaking, it is always a bad idea for one barrister to be too dependent upon one solicitor, just as it is for any business to be too dependent on any one client. If the business moves, you can suddenly find a lot of work on your hands. However, when you are looking to work and are concentrating on building up a practice, that same client can help give you the necessary experience. Therefore the barrister took the view that it was worth taking the risk of doing too much for one source.

There was another problem which was that this work was all legal aid work, a mixture of criminal and civil. Legal aid work could be quite slow to pay. Therefore there was understandable concern that this would leave a big hole in his cash flow. (This occurred at a time when interest rates were very high compared to today, so if you owed money the debt could mount up fairly quickly). However, overall it seemed to be worth it.

The barrister enjoyed a decent run of success. None of these cases was what would be referred to as quality work, but it was work, and it was also all useful for the experience it gave. Moreover sooner or later it would transfer through into the bank balance as and when payment was received.

There then came a day, probably after about six or seven months work had been done for the solicitor, when the barrister's clerk informed him that sadly there was going to be no more work to come from that direction. The solicitor had been arrested in connection with the disappearance of client monies. The solicitor seem likely to receive a prison sentence, and was also going to be struck off. Therefore that continuing source of work was gone completely.

However at that stage the full scale of the problem had not become apparent. In those days papers did not arrive automatically containing the legal aid certificate. If the client had legal aid then instead of agreeing a fee, the solicitor would mark "legal aid" on the front of the brief. It transpired that in a fair number of cases the client did not have legal aid, and had been paying the solicitor privately (including on occasions to cover the hearing itself) but the solicitor had been marking the brief as legal aid. This way he could pocket all the money and get the barrister to work for nothing. Whilst it must have been obvious that this could not have remained secret for ever, it may be that the solicitor had reached a stage where he had given up on the prospect of getting away with it at all and it was only a question of postponing the evil moment. It may be by contrast that he had some naive belief that it would all work out and he would get away with it. He did not and ended up going to prison.

The barrister did not regard the sentence the solicitor received as anything like long enough. The effect of what the solicitor done was as follows. If the solicitor had defrauded him of a privately paying fee he would have been eligible for compensation. If it had been a legal aid case, the legal aid board would have paid. However in all those cases in which the client did not have legal aid but the barrister had worked on the basis of being informed that the client had, he was not eligible for compensation under either scheme. This meant that in respect of a large amount of work he had done for the solicitor, he was going to get precisely nothing. This was not so much show me the money as show me that you're never going to give me the money.

The only two points that you perhaps need to know about this barrister (you will already have realised he was simply furious about what happened) were that he eventually managed to pay off the debts and build up a successful junior practice. So, it could have been worse.

Michael J. Booth QC