The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has issued a strongly worded response to plans to restructure the advocates’ graduated fee scheme for calculating legal aid fees, claiming the government is only seeking to ‘reduce the potential for junior lawyers to earn a living’ even further.
In its response to a Ministry of Justice consultation on proposed reforms, the division backs the Law Society’s stance on the issue but highlights points of ‘particular concern’. In January, The Society said the MoJ’s plans would result in QCs receiving a pay hike with junior barristers and solicitor-advocates losing out.
The JLD adds that it is ‘extremely concerned’ that the uplift of remuneration for QC’s disadvantages solicitor-advocates, and in particular junior advocates who undertake criminal advocacy.
An impact assessment document with the MoJ’s consultation paper states that total expenditure on self-employed QCs would increase by around 10%.
In its response, the JLD said there is ‘no incentive’ for junior lawyers to qualify into criminal law, an area that has already been subject to considerable fee cuts through legal aid reforms.
‘The MoJ’s proposals only seek to reduce the potential for junior lawyers to earn a living even further. If it not seen as financially viable for junior lawyers to specialise in criminal law there is the potential for a lack of representation,’ the JLD said.
It added that the proposals would have a direct impact on those from lower socio-economic backgrounds entering the profession and wishing to specialise in criminal law as it ‘simply would not be financially viable’.
‘The JLD would not wish for there to be a position where only those with sufficient independent means can afford to work as a criminal advocate.’
The MoJ’s consultation paper, released earlier this year, states that the current fee scheme for advocates ‘relies too heavily’ on pages of prosecution evidence, served by the Crown Prosecution Service, as a means of deciding how complex individual cases are and how much a defence advocate should be paid.
The new proposal would introduce a ‘more sophisticated system’ of classifying offences, based on the typical amount of work required in each case. The pages of evidence calculation will continue to feature in drugs and dishonesty cases.
Some elements of the fee would be ‘unbundled’, with fixed fees for specific elements of a case, for example, separate fees for up to six standard appearances.
In its response, the barristers’ representative body The Bar Council said it is broadly in favour of the plans but warned that they should be ‘closely monitored’ to ensure advocates do not lose out.
The JLD has more than 70,000 members and is comprised of LPC students and graduates, trainee solicitors and solicitors with one to five years' PQE.