The Chairman of the Bar Council attacked the ‘grubby and squalid’ backhanders paid by some barristers in exchange for work from solicitors and backed Government plans to outlaw referral fees.

In his keynote address to the 30th Annual Bar Conference, Alistair MacDonald QC said such payments were ‘nothing short of a scandalous misuse of public funds’ and were ‘objectionable’ in every way.

‘Why should taxpayers’ money go to providing a backhander to a person placed in a position of trust by the state, to find and brief the best advocate for the lay client?’

Those who indulge in these ‘nefarious activities’, MacDonald said, are ever ready to seek new ways to hide the truth of what they are really about ‘under the cloak of a name such as an administration fee’.

But, he said: ‘An elephant remains an elephant, whether you call it an elephant or a ballerina.’

There is, said MacDonald, no place in the regime of advocacy fees for a legitimate administration fee.

He continued: ‘Like the drug cheats in sport, who are always one step ahead of those performing the tests, there are no depths to the ingenious means by which these charlatans would seek to dress up their referral fees.’

MacDonald said: ‘The only effective measure would be a complete ban on any payment by the selected advocate to the instructing solicitor. And that is the measure we will be urging in our response to the consultation.

‘There can be no half measures; there must be a complete ban.’

On the Government’s proposals to introduce Crown Court advocacy panels to ensure quality, the Chairman reassured barristers that they had nothing to fear.

He said any scheme should not distinguish between which branch of the profession – solicitor or barrister – the advocate comes from.

‘If a barrister, with his or her unique opportunities to hone their advocacy skills by a year of dedicated advocacy training followed by a year of pupillage and the support structure of chambers, cannot cut the mustard, there can be no excuses.’

But he said: ‘No advocate who does defence work to a high standard should have the slightest thing to fear from a panel scheme.’ 

Doughty St’s Joe Middleton has won the 2015 Bar Pro Bono Award. He was nominated by the Death Penalty Project. The award was announced at the Bar Conference.