Monday, 3 May 2010

Keeping down the cost of passports

From time to time I am asked to countersign passport applications. These days there is quite a long list of people who can do this, what they have in common is formal qualifications or actual working experience from which it can be inferred that they might be vaguely respectable. I am by no means the only barrister who blushes at that concept, but there it is, I'm on the list so I can do it.

Yesterday I was told by a relative that her local medical practice charges £50 for a doctor or nurse to certify a passport application. I was absolutely stunned. How can anyone think it appropriate to charge money for doing this? It seems to me that charging a fee inverts the whole basis of having an official list of the sufficiently great and good. I am qualified to certify applications because my formal qualifications give me a recognised status.

The Law of Status used to be a subject in its own right, it was a course in university law degrees, these days it is rather out of fashion but it still exists. With status comes duty and one of those duties is not to profit from your status otherwise than by earning fees putting your knowledge and skills into use. One aspect of this is codified in the Bar's formal code of conduct which (paraphrased) says that no barrister should seek to gain any personal advantage by reason of his position as a barrister. For example, seeking to get a booking at a busy restaurant by pompously letting them know you like to wear a horsehair wig at work is strictly forbidden. No doubt few establishments would be sufficiently impressed but some might, so we are not allowed to do it and can be fined, suspended or disbarred if we do. This sort of example might seem trivial until you realise that it is not so much about preventing us getting an advantage as it is about others being disadvantaged by our actions.

Status is a double-edged concept. On the one hand it qualifies you to do work others are not permitted to do, often this means that your work is better paid than most. On the other hand it is a matter of how people perceive you. The days of doctors and magistrates being viewed with awe by Mr and Mrs Ordinary are behind us, but the presumption probably still exists that doctors and magistrates have qualities that Mr and Mrs Ordinary don't have. As such the status of being a doctor or a magistrate means that for some purposes they will probably be considered "better than" or "superior to" other people. Because that perception might exist, misuse of it has long been forbidden (yet long practised by those of the "do you know who I am?" school of thought).

It is a moot point whether it is legal to charge a fee for performing a non-professional task that relies on your status, where the profit takes the form of folding stuff rather than a nice table by the window it is arguable that it is unlawful. I am not going to dwell on that side of it today because it would take hours of detailed research. Regardless of the strict legality, I believe it is wholly wrong to make money from voluntarily exercising a power conferred by reason of nothing other than status.

If you think it's too much trouble to countersign a form and write a few words on the back of a small photo, just decline the invitation. If the person knows no one else who is qualified to do it then you should do it as a matter of duty. If they do know someone else then they must ask them once you have rebuffed their request. I have always consider it flattering to be asked to perform this small and simple task. I have also considered it something that I should do whenever asked, it is no burden but even if it were it is a small price to pay for the privileges that come with my official status; indeed I consider having the power to help someone I know obtain a passport is itself one of those privileges. It is not a service I perform in the exercise of my profession it is assistance given to someone I know who is kind enough to entrust that task to me.

Now I'm going to have to spend a day or two in the library researching the lawfulness of imposing a charge. I do hope I conclude it is unlawful, not only is it far too long since I had a serious paper published in the legal journals but I would love to nail the avaricious bastards.


Stan said...

For reasons I won't go into, I'm also one of those officially approved people.

And like yourself, I've always considered it something of a privilege and far from being a burden.

It is scandalous that some are charging for this service - they should be ashamed of themselves.

john miller said...

You get on with that while I fashion the branding iron.

I need some advice as to which letter to mark on the offenders' foreheads. I've made a good case for any one of all 26.

Richard T said...

It is indeed a sad commentary on our times that GPs have been so reduced to penury that they have to resort to charging for countersigning a passport application.

Mark Wadsworth said...

What Stan says.

TFB, I wish you best of luck with your research and following article.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Well if you consider what GP's hourly rate must be (what do they earn now, an average of about £130,000 per year is it not?) then £50 for a ten-second task is probably not so far off the right figure.

But I also hope your researches prove it's illegal. Do tell.