‘Derisory fees’ for youth court work will leave vulnerable children without proper legal representation, the Bar Council has told a government-commissioned review.
Responding to the Criminal Legal Aid Review, the Bar Council said there is ‘insufficient time for leisurely reform’ and that urgent re-funding of the existing schemes is required ‘to make a fulltime criminal defence practice viable’.
The council said the youth court needs specific attention. ‘Youth court work has long been undervalued by the state, notwithstanding its critical importance. Proper rates of remuneration are by far the most important component in ensuring that the children who remain in the system receive the skilled representation that these serious cases deserve. Unless urgent steps are taken to bring about urgent reform, few able or suitably qualified practitioners will have any incentive to work in this area.’
It added that poor remuneration contributes to ‘poor long-term outcomes' for vulnerable children, particularly for black, Muslim and white working-class boys.
The Bar Council said legal representation for youths at the police station should be mandatory - or at least require an opt out - and that anyone aged under 18 at the time of an alleged offence should automatically be considered a vulnerable person in criminal proceedings.
In its detailed submission, the Bar Council concluded that poor pay pushes practitioners away from the practise of criminal law. ‘If the state wants a high quality justice system with sufficient full time specialists to prosecute and defend cases and, for the years ahead, to bring down the backlog, then relying on part-timers whose expertise is lost as they seek economic benefits elsewhere is not a prudent strategy.’
The Law Society submitted its response to the review last week, warning that a growing number of criminal legal aid firms are closing their doors or struggling to retain talent, and not enough younger solicitors are coming through to replace an ageing population.