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SYNOD: Legal fees

by
21 February 2014

GEOFF CRAWFORD

Listening: members of the House of Bishops attend to the debate

Listening: members of the House of Bishops attend to the debate

MOVING the Legal Officers (Annual Fees) Order 2014, Elizabeth Renshaw (Chester) said that the draft Order prescribed the annual fees payable to each diocesan registrar for the legal services specified in section two of the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure 1986.

The Draft Order had been proposed by the newly reconstituted Fees Advisory Commission, which had taken the opportunity to revise the way fees had been calculated. "The current retainer system has been in place for over 40 years. . . There has been longstanding dissatisfaction over the method of calculating the level of the retainer."

Under the new approach, dioceses and registrars would be "working together to achieve the best and most cost-effective service" and, "for the first time, the retainer will take account of the actual workloads." Dioceses and registrars would talk through figures before sending them to the Commission.

The Commission's original proposals envisaged an uplift of 50 per cent, to be phased in over five years. After a consultation, this had been revised to 30 per cent, still over five years.

The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, explained that the Church Commissioners funded 43 per cent of the cost of diocesan retainers. "Expertise in ecclesiastical law is such a narrow specialist area" that dioceses needed "support from the centre".

Madelaine Goddard (Derby), a non-lawyer member of the Fees Advisory Commission, said that in 2012 the retainer paid to registrars covered only 57 per cent of the work undertaken. The current situation "cannot be allowed to continue because, unless our registrars receive a fair return, they and their legal firms will be unable to carry on providing good legal advice".

Aiden Hargreaves-Smith (London) disclosed that he was a registrar of two dioceses and a member of the executive committee of the Ecclesiastical Law Society. He was extremely unhappy that the proposals of the Fees Advisory Commission "fall a long way short" of the recommendations made by an independent review.

In 2001, the total sum of retainers paid to registrars had covered only 59 per cent of the actual value of the work carried out. That had dropped, "year on year", to just 45 per cent in 2012. "Registrars are being paid for less than half of the work they do."

Dr John Mason (Chester) said that, even though he was not a great fan of lawyers in general, all advice he had ever had on ecclesiastical law was excellent. "Registrars are expected to provide unlimited advice on complex matters to almost 900 people in my diocese," he said. "The current trend of reducing the amounts covered in the retainer will mean long-established firms will no longer be represented."

Andrew Britton

(Archbishops' Council) said that these proposals were good for three reasons: they ensured lawyers were given fair pay for the work they did; they helped retain legal advice of quality; and they pushed dioceses to begin having better local relationships with their registrars. "The real-terms increase will be minimal."

Canon Joyce Jones

(Wakefield) said: "I need to be able to phone our registrar and get the advice I need without worrying about how that will be paid for." But this system was under threat if the retainer fees were inadequate. "We need to pay them fairly, but we also need to ensure we are getting value for money."

The Bishop of Dorchester

, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher (Southern Suffragans), said that fees for registrars were fundamentally a moral question. "One registrar told me his retainer pays for the office and the office staff, but he receives littleor nothing from that retainer. . .The labourer is worthy of theirhire." The proposed fees still represented a significant discount from the actual cost of providing the legal services.

Canon David Felix

(Chester) said these proposals should be the beginning of a change of culture. "I welcome the openness and accountability this new order sets out. I also welcome the annual review." There were still many clergy who were too critical of lawyers.

The Bishop of Peterborough,

the Rt Revd Donald Allister, wanted to pay tribute to the 40-year service of his diocesan registrar, who was soon to retire. "It will be much easier to recruit a successor if there is a reasonable level of fees, and this goes some way towards that."

 

The motion was carried.

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