The Ministry of Justice is to reintroduce fees for cracked trials in a policy U-turn announced today apparently as an olive branch to the legal profession.
A statutory instrument laid today will also introduce interim payments for criminal solicitors and barristers working on long-running cases.
The amendments to the legal aid regulations will come into force from 2 October and are designed to ease the financial burden on lawyers who have suffered successive fee cuts.
They will reintroduce ‘cracked-trial fees’ for both litigators and advocates in cases that collapse. This means that defence solicitors and barristers will no longer lose out financially when a case cracks because the prosecution drops the case.
Following fee changes introduced by this government, if a case is halted due to the prosecution offering no evidence, lawyers whose clients choose to have an either-way case heard in the Crown court, are paid fixed fees at a similar level to those paid in the magistrates’ court.
Given that such disruptions are beyond the control of the defence, the ministry accepted that there is an unfairness, and will introduce a higher rate (the cracked-trial fee in a Crown court case).
Interim payments will be made to solicitors and barristers undertaking lengthy cases, in a bid to help with their cashflow. They will also be able to claim some of their fees at the beginning of the trial.
The ministry said that currently lawyers in trials that last more than 10 days have to wait ‘too long’ in some instances for fees to be paid, as bills are submitted at the end of a trial.
Justice secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘I promised we would do everything we can to ease the transition to the new legal aid fee system. While we have no choice but to make fee reductions we said we would introduce interim payments for solicitors and cracked-trial fees where the prosecution drops the case. The regulation changes laid today make good on that commitment.’
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: ‘These measures remedy a well-recognised unfairness in the system and will help to improve cashflow for our members. We are glad to see them being introduced at last and they will undoubtedly be of some help to some firms.
‘However, the scale of the fee cuts and the impact of the contract changes being introduced mean that many of our members will regard this as too little, too late to save their businesses.
‘We will be continuing to press the government to recognise the impact of its proposals on our members working in the criminal justice system, and to think again before irreparable damage results.’
This week saw the government face a legal challenge to its consultation introducing 17.5% fee cuts and contracting changes that could reduce the number of firms from 1,600 to 525.