The government has set aside an additional £8m for criminal defence advocacy fees after Law Society research called in to question a lower offer earlier this year. An additional £23m will now be spent on the revised Crown court fee scheme for advocates, the Ministry of Justice announced today.
Earlier this year, the government proposed to increase spending on the revised advocates' graduated fee scheme (AGFS) by £15m after criminal barristers refused to accept new work for a number of weeks. It then ran a consultation on the plans, which closed earlier this month.
Despite voting to accept the £15m, members of the criminal bar subsequently became angered at the delay in implementing the scheme. Meanwhile, the Law Society revealed that the proposals were actually only worth £8.6m, because the promised amount was based on misleading calculations.
Barristers have already warned that a ‘no returns’ policy, whereby they would refuse both new work and cases that come from colleagues who have other commitments, could be reinstated. This action was due to come into force earlier this year but was suspended after barristers voted to accept the MoJ’s initial offer.
Lord chancellor David Gauke, who will today address the bar’s annual conference, also committed to bringing forward a 1% increase in all fees to come into effect alongside the new scheme. According to the government, the money will be targeted at junior advocates to support continued investment in the profession.
Gauke said today: ‘We have acted on the views we have heard during our engagement with the bar and will increase spending on criminal advocates’ fees by £8m, bringing the total increase to £23m. The government is committed to working closely with the legal professions to ensure that criminal defence advocacy is fit for the modern age and open to all.’
Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said: 'We have been relentlessly making the case that after years of deep cuts across the criminal justice system, significant investment is urgently required to address an increasing crisis, which is impacting profoundly on the retention and diversity of junior criminal barristers. Women, in particular, have been leaving the profession in large numbers. The secretary of state has listened to our concerns and this development is an important first step in turning things around. There remain serious, structural problems with the new scheme, which will require further investment.'
In a statement, the Law Society described the plans to increase spending on trial fees in serious criminal cases as a ’helpful first step’ in addressing the crisis in criminal legal aid. Christina Blacklaws, president, said the government’s change of heart vindicated the Society's research because the ministry had agreed to the changes sought by Chancery Lane.
However, she said: ’Advocacy in the Crown courts is only one small part of the system. We would urge the MoJ to restart discussions to try to formulate a revised approach to the litigators' graduated fee scheme (LGFS), as well as the fees paid for work undertaken in the magistrates’ court and police station to ensure solicitors are fairly paid for the work they have to do.’
’There is a desperate need to increase fees for all of this other work if we are to have any hope of avoiding the imminent extinction of the criminal defence solicitor in some parts of the country.’
The revised AGFS scheme will come into effect through a statutory instrument scheduled to be laid in December. The scheme will be reviewed after 18 months.