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Minister firing blanks

Caswell Franklyn

Minister firing blanks

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recently demoted minister Donville Inniss was reported in the Sunday Sun of March 10 as complaining about “the fee-setting policies of service providers in this island”.
His remarks were particularly scathing in relation to the fee structure for lawyers and health care professionals. He claimed that their fees were skewed in such a way that it resulted in wealth for a few and crumbs for the majority of Barbadians.
Those remarks caught me by surprise. My first reaction was that the minister seemed not to realize that the election campaign was over and was seeking political mileage by appearing to speak up for the masses against the big, bad lawyers and doctors.
I have enjoyed relatively good health thus far so I cannot really speak from personal knowledge of the level of doctors’ fees. In any event, I have taken the added precaution of purchasing medical insurance.
The minister, on the other hand, held the portfolio of health for five years and was in place to do something about those fees that were enriching those professionals and leaving only crumbs for the rest of us. However, the minister and I have arrived at the same conclusion, with respect to legal fees, even though we took different routes. I took the path of knowledge of the subject.
While I am not seeking to put a case for the legal profession (they can speak for themselves), I am concerned that Mr Inniss has conveyed a simplistic and erroneous position to the public.
He was speaking as though he is unaware of the fact that the fees charged by lawyers for non-contentious business are regulated by law. The Legal Profession (Attorneys at Law) (Remuneration For Non-Contentious Business) Rules set out the minimum fees that lawyers are permitted to charge for their services.
As far as I am aware, lawyers routinely charge the minimum fees which, according to the minister, still result in this wealth for the few. He should have been aware that lawyers are prohibited from charging less, but they are entitled to charge more.
A lawyer who charges less without first getting permission from the Costs Committee of the Barbados Bar Association could be disciplined. And we all know that lawyers would never break rules.
If this caring minister feels that the prescribed minimum fees generate unreasonably high levels of compensation, rather than criticize lawyers (they really don’t need any help to make themselves look bad; they do that quite well without assistance) he should take steps to relieve the public of that burden.
Since he is so outraged, he is ideally placed to take steps to introduce competition in the market; it is not unheard of in other jurisdictions. I suggest that he should take a look at the innovations to the system of conveyancing that is practised in England. The Barbadian legal system has its origins in England so it would not be hard to adapt.
In England either party to a land transaction can do their own paperwork if they are knowledgeable or they can purchase a do-it-yourself kit. Also, as far back as 1985, their Administration Of Justice Act was amended to provide for licensed conveyancers. These practitioners are not solicitors or barristers, but persons who are trained in conveyancing.  
As a result, the monopoly that was previously enjoyed by solicitors has been broken and fees have been greatly reduced. Other Commonwealth countries have introduced similar systems. However, in Barbados’ case, all we have gotten for the last five years is a lot of long talk about reducing prices but they continue to spiral out of the reach of the majority of Barbadians.
Another area where the minister can concentrate his efforts is the absolutely greedy prescribed fees structure. If a lawyer acts for a person who is buying a property for $100 000 or $100 million, he does the same amount of paperwork, yet still the fees are vastly different.
Lawyers would argue that they should be compensated for the greater risk, since they would be liable to make good any loss to their client, in the event that they commit a mistake. I really don’t take that explanation seriously. There is no need to charge higher fees, just insure the risk for each transaction, and maybe the client could be called upon to pay the premium as part of the fees payable.
The minister was speaking from the premise that lawyers and doctors set their own fees, which is only partially true. In most cases, the services provided by medical doctors are subject to competition and the market would take care of those whose work does not merit the high fees.
On the other hand, the minimum fees for non-contentious business performed by lawyers are regulated. With that in mind, how can any Government minister feel that he has any legitimacy to be critical of the fees of any professional who, by dint of hard work and study, has reached a stage where he can command higher fees, especially where Members of Parliament set their own salaries and pension conditions?
Without objective analysis, the minister’s speech would have left you with the impression that he is a straight shooter. On this occasion, he was firing blanks.
• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator. Email [email protected]