The government has revealed how it hopes to allocate a £15m ‘investment’ into the criminal justice system after it was forced into reforming the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) following this year’s direct action by barristers. But critics have already claimed juniors will still lose out to those at the higher end of the profession.
According to today’s consultation paper, fees in certain cases will be increased by between 10% and 50%. These are; sexual offences involving children (category 4), dishonesty offences (category 6), and drugs offences (category 9). Basic fees for junor advocates, lead juniors, QCs, and solicitor-advocates are also to be increased. A 1% fee rise across all offences will also come into effect in April 2019, the government added.
The MoJ said it has ‘spoken extensively’ to practitioners and representatives to better understand their concerns after its earlier proposals for reforming AGFS - which determines how advocates are remunerated in publicly funded cases - forced hundreds of chambers to stop accepting new legal aid work. The government said that having ‘carefully considered the concerns’ it recognised that fees should be raised.
The proposed increases for juniors’ basic trial fees are;
Category 4: band 4.2 from £1,400 to £1,550 (10%) and band 4.3 from £1,000 to £1,500 (50%);
Category 6: band 6.1 from £8,000 to £8,450 (5%); band 6.2 from £5,000 to £7,625 (52%); and band 6.3 from £2,000 to £2,825 (41%);
Category 9: band 9.1 from £7,500 to £8,700 (15%); and band 9.4 from £2,000 to £2,625 (31%).
QCs, whose rates are double that of junior advocates, will also have their fees increased by the same rate.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said the figures suggest that the flaw in the previous proposals - that money is still being removed from the junior profession and transferred up to the higher end of the profession - has not been addressed. ‘If our analysis is right, these proposals will only serve to worsen the recruitment crisis in the profession,’ she said.
Blacklaws added: 'We’re glad the government recognises that remuneration for criminal defence services needs to increase. It is disappointing that the MoJ has not taken the opportunity to review fees across both parts of the system as part of a coherent plan for addressing this crisis. Solicitor advocates are also impacted by these changes and it is vital the MoJ consults properly with all affected stakeholders on how the £15m is to be distributed.’
The government’s earlier AGFS reforms, which came into force on 1 April, were hugely unpopular.
More than 100 chambers refused to take on new legal aid work and claimed the changes continued the trend of cuts to legal aid. Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) were due to escalate their action by also enacting a ‘no returns’ policy, under which barristers would have refused to take over cases when diaries clashed. However action was suspended after the government made its offer.
The CBA allowed its members to vote on the proposals. A total of 3,038 barristers voted on the proposals with 1,566 (51.5%) voting to accept the proposal and 1,472 voting against (48.45%).
Justice minister Lucy Frazer said: ’We have worked closely with the leaders of the Bar Council and CBA to address concerns raised over the AGFS and we now welcome the thoughts of the wider legal professions on the revised scheme. We are committed to working with the sector to support and strengthen the criminal advocacy profession and will listen carefully to the responses we receive.’
The consultation is open until 28 September.