The government has largely stuck to its plans for reforming the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) in its response to a wide-reaching consultation that proposed basing criminal advocates’ pay on the seriousness and complexity of the work rather than the number of pages in a case.
The Ministry of Justice said today that the reformed AGFS will ensure that pay better reflects the ‘actual work being done by criminal defence advocates and that advocates are being fairly remunerated for work in more complex cases’.
It added that following ’careful consideration of consultees’ views’, it has adjusted the original proposals to ensure the scheme more accurately rewards work done, particularly by junior advocates. The government received 408 responses to its consultation. Of those, it claimed 50% were in favour of the proposals with 43% against.
However, critics have noted that no more money is available overall and the criminal justice system has suffered from severe cuts. The Law Society said that depriving one portion of the criminal justice system to fund another could inflict further instability, warning of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’.
Angela Rafferty QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the association would be forming a coalition with criminal legal aid solicitors to ‘campaign for the restoration of properly funded criminal legal aid and a halt in the degradation of the criminal justice system’.
‘This scheme does not restore or improve the funding for criminal legal aid advocacy fees and does not represent any new investment in criminal justice,’ she said, adding that the budget for legal aid work has been cut by 40% in real terms over 20 years.
Proposals under the revised scheme include:
- Remunerating each standard appearance separately (including those where the number of standard appearances exceeds six in an individual case);
- Increased standard appearance fees (including from £60 to £90 for a junior barrister);
- Higher hearing fees (including an increase from £100 to £125 for a junior barrister).
Bar chair Andrew Walker QC, said the changes ‘do not truly involve an increase in the money being committed to the scheme’, even though several of the rates payable will be higher than originally proposed.
‘While we are not surprised by this, we cannot disguise our disappointment. We still have a system of payment for the vast majority of criminal defence work in the Crown court that undervalues the skills of the criminal bar,’ he said.
Today’s announcement comes just a few months after further legal aid cuts were imposed on defence solicitors.
Joe Egan, president of The Law Society, said: ‘The MoJ needs to develop a coherent plan for addressing the underfunding crisis across the whole of the defence professions. Increased fees for advocates will be of no use if there are no litigators left to instruct them.’
The revised scheme will apply from 1 April 2018 and will be reviewed after 18 to 24 months.