Criminal barristers have strongly opposed a proposal from the solicitors’ regulator to lift the ban on referral fees paid for criminal legal aid cases.

Responding to the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority’s regulatory reform consultation, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said the payment of referral fees is “unethical” and “against the interests of vulnerable clients, the rule of law, the administration of justice and the public interest”.

It said the fees exist “solely for the benefit of solicitors” and should be “outlawed”.

According to the CBA: “Such payments have no place in publicly funded work and are an improper use of public funds: they do not represent value for money, and are not payments for legal services.

“They are contrary to the public interest, they distort the market for legal services by denying clients a free choice of representative, and they are open to abuse by solicitors who put their own financial interests above the interests of their clients.”

The association expressed concern that the SRA thought it appropriate “even to consult on this issue”. It said: “The payment of referral fees is no more than a system of buying and selling cases – and ultimately of treating clients as a tradeable commodity.”

Given the tight margins in criminal defence work, it said the “inevitable consequence” of permitting referral fees would be a reduction in the quality of the service provided. “While this might suit the commercial interests of the parties to the referral fee, such an arrangement cannot be in the interests of the public or the user of the service.”

The CBA said it is “anecdotally” aware of allegations that solicitors have demanded payments to secure instructions in better paid legal aid cases.

In the consultation, which closed in June, the SRA said it understood the issue is a “topic of concern” for many who “understandably” find referral fees “distasteful and unethical”.

But it said the criminal legal market has been in a “state of flux” with legal aid cuts, the introduction of means testing, and wider changes in the justice system that have “blurred” the roles of solicitors and barristers and altered the flow of cases.

It acknowledged allegations that referral fees are already being paid directly or indirectly in criminal work, for example, to acquire advocacy cases or to “swap” multi-handed cases.

And it accepted the “economic imperatives” for doing so, but questioned whether it is in the interests of vulnerable consumers or the rule of law.