SecretE-Diary - January 2012

William Byfield, Gutteridge Chambers : A sad acknowledgement that although the problem of late payment is not a new one, this time round the effects are more acute than ever

December 1, 2011: “A man who pays his bills on time is soon forgotten” - Oscar Wilde.

Chasing fees is a perennial problem. I remember a dinner party in the early nineties at the house of an old university friend, also at the Bar and now an eminent civil practitioner and fellow Head of Chambers. At the time we were both going through what might loosely be called a cash-flow crisis. After a wonderful dinner cooked by his most glamorous and exotic wife, talk turned to the irritations of life.

The principal guests were his rather well heeled neighbours – they both worked in the City. Money came up. Of course, all things are relative and I am sure that funding issues with what I deduced was the Square Mile duo’s third house were both genuine and traumatic. However, my mucker and I were more concerned with a crisis over payment of our fees. As I swilled the velvety claret in my glass and savoured the delicate tastes of the delightful Asian dish I was eating, I felt a truth about to emerge, like some truculent baby appearing prematurely.

“Actually,” I said, “unless I am the sole winner of the jackpot in tomorrow’s lottery, I am bankrupt.” My friend started to laugh – not in a normal way, but with an incipient hysteria. “Same here,” he said. “I can’t even afford to share it with you.” We then both started laughing hopelessly and helplessly: so badly that I fell off my chair altogether. The city couple had laughed politely at the beginning, but started to look more and more alarmed as we began shrieking. I was now beating my fists on the carpet, as my stomach muscles became unbearably painful with the effort of laughing. Aged debt had never been so funny. The neighbours made an excuse to depart before the digestifs.

Thankfully, all this had become a nostalgic memory over the years. Although fees in publicly funded work were increasingly subject to cuts, the state had at last started to pay its bills within a month or so because the payment system had been radically simplified - reduced largely to a formula.

They had obviously overheard Paddy Corkhill moaning to me, after a few tankards at The Cheshire Cheese. “I can put up with pay cuts,” he said.“I’ll take having to fund my own holiday pay, medical insurance, sickness benefit and pension. But why the hell can’t they just pay up, as they lecture everyone else to?”

This was before the latest fee cuts started to resemble Jack the Ripper on performance-enhancing drugs. But at least the fees now came promptly, even if reduced. Then, about a year ago, Heads of Chambers received a letter from our paymasters explaining that payment arrangements were to change. Various explanations were put forward including all-important auditing considerations. I have no reason to doubt what was written and I hope any future readers of this diary will not wrongly detect irony here: it is obvious that the consequential enormous delay when paying fees, reminiscent of the bad old days, is simply a regrettable by-product of necessary change and certainly not the intended effect.

So, prompt payment, only recently achieved, is now replaced by financial embarrassment to thousands of already hard-pressed, self-employed practitioners. There is a system of hardship payments that many may find a demeaning obstacle course, inimical to personal dignity. Even the Twist brothers, generally impaled on spikes of vacillation, spoke out. As Alexander, or was it Roderick, asked: “I wonder if a county court judge would take the same view of my declining to pay the plumber in any reasonable time, suggesting instead that he apply for hardship payments under some tortuous scheme and, if his invoice contained any technical defect, sending the whole shebang to the back of my queue, to begin its interminable voyage to payment all overagain?” This last was doubtless a reference to a refined game of “Snakes and Ladders” called “Snakes and More Snakes” which is now played in respect of any defects or omissions on our claim forms.

Watching the new barristers at my Inn’s recent Call Night, I wondered why any of them would want to specialise in publicly funded work. A gap between fees for private and public work has always existed and been understood, but a combination of slashed rates and disgracefully slow payment means that able young barristers will inevitably shun publicly funded cases, as our political masters must appreciate. I looked around the ancient hall at all those young and hopeful faces and a tear rolled down my cheek. It was not one of laughter.

William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.