GUY ADAMS: How the Covid Inquiry is spending £750K a day on lawyers

Trebles all round for lawyers and Lefties! GUY ADAMS investigates how the Covid Inquiry is spending £750K a day on barristers and solicitors – while the beyond smug KC leads a team charging up to £220 an hour

Keeping London’s most sought-after barristers in the style to which they are accustomed is an eye-wateringly expensive business. Take Hugo Keith KC.

The Lead Counsel to the Covid Inquiry, who spent his week grilling Boris Johnson, has ‘a brain the size of a planet’, according to his own website.

After a successful career over five decades, his bank balance appears to boast similarly gargantuan proportions.

Home is a rambling red-brick Victorian pile in rural Hampshire, purchased for just shy of £3 million a few years ago.

There are five bedrooms, a dressing room to store his tailored suits, a tennis court, swimming pool and two acres of landscaped walled gardens containing a guest cottage, plus ornamental topiary and a greenhouse, all at the end of a sweeping gravel driveway.

Hugo Keith KC, Lead Counsel to the Covid Inquiry, who spent his week grilling Boris Johnson, lives in a rambling red-brick Victorian pile in rural Hampshire, purchased for just shy of £3 million

In legal proceedings, stakes tend to be high. Reputations, livelihoods and multi-million pound fortunes are won or lost

The property, along with Keith’s pied-a-terre (a flat in London’s Kensington), has been exquisitely decked out by his wife Lottie, a posh interior designer and former boarding school chum of the King’s god-daughter India Hicks.


Elsewhere, the couple’s grown-up son has been educated at Eton, at a cost of £50,000 a year. The couple also have two daughters, educated at boarding school.

Keith, who, like Rishi Sunak, went to Winchester and Oxford, describes his favourite weekend recreation as ‘sailing’.

Such is the gilded life of a leading ‘silk’ — and, one might argue, there’s nothing wrong with that.

In legal proceedings, stakes tend to be high. Reputations, livelihoods and multi-million pound fortunes are won or lost.

Barristers who are — again to quote Hugo Keith’s unblushing description of himself on his website — ‘absolutely top notch’ and a ‘phenomenal powerhouse of ability’, are worth their weight in gold.

That in turn goes at least some way to explaining the astonishing cost of the Covid Inquiry, via which this famous KC is now filling our news bulletins.

The taxpayer-funded project was formally set up in June last year and began holding proper hearings under the watchful eye of retired Appeal Court judge Baroness Hallett just five months ago.

By the end of September, it had already managed to chew through £56 million of public money. Today, that figure is closer to £70 million. But this is only the start.

At present , the whole thing is expected to run until 2026 and, all the while, bills from our learned friends will continue to mount. According to the inquiry’s recent quarterly accounts, it’s now spending around £18 million every three months, of which more than half (£9.7 million) involves ‘legal costs’.

A ‘secretariat’ — or administrative office — has so far cost another £7.3 million. It employs no fewer than 118 people and is currently advertising for more. A ‘Deputy Head of Public Information Campaigns’, who can enjoy ‘flexible working conditions’ and a salary of £53,000-£64,000, is in the process of being recruited.

Another £5.8 million has gone on Every Story Matters, the mechanism for allowing people to share experiences of the pandemic. It includes money spent on a large commemorative tapestry hanging inside the inquiry’s headquarters in Paddington.

As Boris Johnson rightly pointed out, the slide presented by Keith had cherry-picked data from a tiny number of other countries

To put things another way, Baroness Hallett, who is herself earning £256,000-a-year, is presiding over proceedings that may very well see more than £100 million funnelled to her colleagues in the legal profession

(By comparison, the Daily Mail’s Remember Me campaign, including a stunning monument in St Paul’s Cathedral and a book of remembrance via which the public has so far paid tribute to 11,400 victims, has cost taxpayers zero.)

This rate of spending amounted to an astonishing £1.38 million bill for each of the 13 days the inquiry actually sat last quarter, of which £750,000 per day went on lawyers. It puts the whole thing on course to become one of the most expensive public inquiries in history.


Indeed, no-one seems to know quite where the spending will end. Analysis compiled this week by the Taxpayers Alliance suggests the overall cost will reach £156 million, while the Institute For Government think tank reckons we’re on the hook for even more, predicting that the final bill may well surpass both the Child Sex Abuse inquiry (£193 million) and the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which lasted 12 years and cost £200 million.

To put things another way, Baroness Hallett, who is herself earning £256,000-a-year, is presiding over proceedings that may very well see more than £100 million funnelled to her colleagues in the legal profession. That’s enough to pay salaries for nearly 3,000 nurses or teachers.

You can best understand how it has come to this by dropping into the building where Keith — recently nicknamed ‘Hugo Hindsight’ by one newspaper on account of his hostile bearing towards witnesses and obsession with the intemperate language used in WhatsApp messages sent during the crisis — spent most of Wednesday and Thursday cross-examining Boris Johnson.

Footage shared with TV networks showed the KC standing behind a desk, while the former PM sat in a sort of dock. Baroness Hallett was seated between them, much like a judge in a trial. From time to time, a smattering of men and women in suits could be seen sitting on benches in the background.

That was what the livestream showed, but the reality was a great deal less intimate. For the room, which covered an area roughly the size of two tennis courts, was largely filled with lawyers, many of them paid for by the taxpayer.

During one session I counted about 66 of them, roughly three times as many people as had been allowed into the public gallery.Details of exactly what all these lawyers actually do are hard to pin down but some clues can be found in the inquiry’s last public accounts.

These show that Keith is leading a team of no fewer than 62 barristers. Twelve of them are King’s Counsel, the most senior form of trial lawyer, while the remaining 50 are described as ‘junior counsel’. Not all of them work full-time but, when they do, they need paying.

In addition, the inquiry is shelling out for a team of 30 solicitors from the law firm Burges Salmon. They are supported by a team of paralegals ‘responsible for reviewing the evidential material that is provided to the inquiry’.

Funnily enough, this small army failed to prevent Keith presenting the inquiry, during his opening statement, with a deeply misleading graphic suggesting that the UK’s ‘excess death’ rate during Covid was one of the worst in the developed world.

As Boris Johnson rightly pointed out, the slide had cherry-picked data from a tiny number of other countries. Had it shown every comparable nation, the graphic would have revealed the UK’s overall performance, on this front, to be slightly better than average.

We digress. The overall cost for this lumbering inquiry’s 100-odd lawyers had, by the end of September, reached £19.6 million and has been rising at a rate of £5.7 million every three months.

In addition, a further £11.7 million had been spent helping so-called ‘core participants’ in the inquiry with their legal bills, for which another small army of lawyers is on the payroll. That figure was rising by £3.97 million per quarter. As ever, in the law, everyone is being paid by the hour, under rules laid down by the Prime Minister when the inquiry was announced.

These rules dictate that ‘leading counsel’, which presumably includes Keith and his fellow KCs, are paid a ‘maximum’ rate of £220 per hour. Their juniors get a more modest £120.

All solicitors with more than eight years’ experience can charge £175 an hour, while those with more than four years on the frontline get £150. Trainees, paralegals and ‘other fee earners’ can pull in £100 per hour. Under the rules they can bill for up to 40 hours of work per week, 52 weeks a year, aside from in the eight weeks leading up to and during hearings, when 60-hour weeks can be authorised by the solicitor to the inquiry.

In other words, each of the 12 KCs employed by the inquiry can earn £8,000 per week in normal times, and up to £13,200 a week during periods when they are particularly busy. For top solicitors on the payroll, the figures are £7,000 and £10,500.

Adding to the extortionate cost, for you and me, are rules governing ‘travel and waiting time’ connected to their duties, which can then also be billed to the taxpayer at half the normal hourly rate. It seems, as the saying goes, nice work if you can get it. And a peculiar feature of the inquiry so far is that many of the lawyers on the receiving end of this taxpayer-funded largesse are being paid to represent organisations that are openly hostile to the Government.

This state of affairs has come about because Baroness Hallett has allowed a raft of Left-leaning pressure groups and charities to be ‘core participants’ in the inquiry. This confers privileged status, allowing them to make official statements and submissions, to employ barristers to address the court and (at the Chair’s discretion) cross-examine witnesses.

In circumstances where the Baroness feels a group has insufficient cash to afford their own legal representatives, their bills are paid for by the inquiry.

This is almost always the case when a ‘core participant’ represents bereaved families, under the rules established by the Prime Minister. These are the payments that have so far added up to the aforementioned £11.7 million.

Perhaps the most high profile such group is Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice, which started out as a Facebook group connecting people who had lost loved ones during the pandemic and now claims to have 6,000 members. Its PR campaigns have recently been orchestrated by Led By Donkeys, a combative lobbying organisation known for installing billboards ridiculing Conservative politicians and criticising Brexit.

And the two founders of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, along with at least half of the organisation’s board members, turn out to be longstanding Labour activists whose party-political campaigning pre-dates the pandemic.

One co-founder (and board member), Matt Fowler, a Jaguar Land Rover employee from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, is a stalwart supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Prior to Covid, he used social media to support the Left wing group People’s Assembly Against Austerity and anti-Brexit lobby groups ‘’ and the ‘second referendum’ campaign.

At the 2019 election, Fowler told followers: ‘Remember: if you vote for anyone other than Labour, you are giving votes up to the Tories . . . So think whether you are happy with five more years of Tory austerity and cuts to services.’

Shortly afterwards, he declared ‘the Tories don’t care for your lives.’ Now his group appears to be attempting to prove it.

The group’s second founder, Jo Goodman, works for the Trussell Trust, a food bank charity that has campaigned against Conservative welfare policy.

She was a volunteer for both the hard-Left group Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour during the 2019 election. ‘I’m Jewish and actively involved in campaigning for Momentum which is presented as a hotbed of anti-Semitism but has actually felt like an incredibly supportive safe space,’ she said.

One of five board members, alongside Fowler, is Deborah Doyle, a wellness practitioner from Sunderland, who has described Boris Johnson as ‘the lowest of the low’. Another, Rivka Gottlieb, has used social media to claim: ‘There are only two things that Tory MPs consider before announcing a policy: how can I make money from this? Will it help me stay in power? They don’t consider the one thing they should: will it benefit the country.’

There is, of course, nothing wrong with individual people holding party-political views. But the expensive platforming of groups whose key players hold partisan (and arguably offensive) views has sparked criticism.

‘Taxpayers have enough reality TV without this charade of an inquiry,’ said the Taxpayers Alliance this week. ‘While it is crucial that lessons are learned from the pandemic, there’s little sign at the moment that we will be left with anything but a huge bill. The Covid Inquiry should be short, sharp and decisive, not an expensive political pantomime.’

The inquiry, for its part, says it ‘requires significant legal expertise’ to do its job and that ‘all inquiry spend is rigorously reviewed to get the best value

for the public purse’. In fairness, the hourly rate being paid to some (but not all) of the lawyers, notably Mr Keith, is almost certainly less than they might earn on the open market.

Another Left wing group which has secured ‘core participant’ status is Southall Black Sisters, a charity formed to carry out valuable work combatting domestic abuse in ethnic minority communities, which has lately begun campaigning against the Government on a host of unrelated fronts.

Earlier this week, it was telling supporters ‘we are appalled by the Government’s persistence on the Rwanda scheme.’ And last month staff were marching for a ‘ceasefire in Gaza’ outside Parliament, and using social media to accuse Israel of ‘settler colonial apartheid’.

(Sadly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, Southall Black Sisters has showed comparatively little sympathy on its official social media for the Jewish women raped and kidnapped on October 7.)

Then there’s the TUC, whose member unions are (among other things) currently striking on the railways. General Secretary Paul Nowak is a former student Marxist who joined Labour at 19 and once described himself by saying ‘I fit every stereotype’ of a trade unionist. ‘I’m a slightly overweight, balding Scouser who gets a little bit too aerated.’

Other ‘core participants’ include: the BMA doctors’ union, currently threatening strikes in hospitals over Christmas; Save The Children, once dubbed ‘The Blair Government in exile’ by this newspaper; and Long Covid Kids, a charity whose trustees include Meredith Leston, a public health consultant and fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

It’s impossible to be entirely sure whether any of these other groups is having legal fees paid by the taxpayer, since the inquiry won’t say. However, I’m told that the TUC definitely isn’t receiving a subsidy since it’s regarded as a ‘substantial organisation’ with sufficient resources to pay its own way.

That said, you will look in vain for any organisation, anywhere in the room, boasting a remotely Conservative world-view. And the lawyers representing these groups seem to hail from similarly partisan stock.

Aamer Anwar, who is solicitor to Scottish Covid Bereaved, was a prominent activist in the Stop the War coalition who recently remarked on social media: ‘It’s time to bring this barbaric Tory government to its knees.’

Elkan Abrahamson, who represents Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, is a supporter of Remain activist Gina Miller’s True & Fair party.

Last year, he invited followers on social media to stand as one of its candidates against ‘the more dishonest Tory politicians at the next election’.

Shamik Dutta, solicitor for various disability groups with ‘core participant’ status, urged followers at the last General Election to ‘vote the Tories out on December 12’.

Paul Herron, who represents the aforementioned Southall Black Sisters, calls himself ‘a lawyer, socialist and activist’.

Shortly before the Queen’s death, he tweeted: ‘f*** the obscene wealth of the Royal Family and the system they represent’.

Next week, the circus will return to Paddington, where expensive lawyers funded by the taxpayer will get yet another chance to lob grenades at a prominent Tory politician, in the shape of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. And so the gravy train keeps on rolling.

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