The government has proposed a fee for defence lawyers who engage with early disclosure, in the latest step in the Criminal Legal Aid Review – but commentators say it will not provide the money that criminal solicitors ‘desperately need’.
In a consultation published today, the Ministry of Justice proposes a new unit of work for advice and assistance associated with pre-charge engagement. Work undertaken by defence lawyers in relation to pre-charge engagement is not currently remunerated separately through the fee schemes.
The consultation – which ends on Monday 25 January – says defence practitioners will be paid where it has been agreed between the relevant parties that pre-charge engagement may assist the investigation and a full written record of the discussions is made by the defence.
It proposes that the work is not means tested and is paid at the same rate as the current Police Station Advice and Assistance rates (£51.28 in London, £47.45 outside London). It also proposes an upper limit of £273.75 as ‘the volume of work associated with pre-charge engagement is unclear’.
Payment for pre-charge engagement is the final accelerated area of the Criminal Legal Aid Review. It was not included in the consultation earlier this year as a consultation on disclosure guidelines was still ongoing. Revised guidelines have now been published and come into force at the end of the year.
David Greene, president of the Law Society, said: ‘While today’s announcement of the fee for engaging with early disclosure is welcome, it is not the extra money that criminal defence solicitors are so desperately in need of.
‘This fee is simply payment for extra work that solicitors will have to do under the attorney general’s new guidance on pre-charge engagement. The Ministry of Justice has been aware of the guidance for some time so we are disappointed the consultation is only being published now.’
Greene added that there is still 'an urgent need for interim relief' as the second part of the Criminal Legal Aid Review has yet to start and 'any benefits arising from it are some way off'.
Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC said: ‘Early engagement between the prosecution and the defence is crucial to ensuring cases progress quickly – reducing delays and benefiting the criminal justice system as a whole.
‘We are making sure lawyers are paid for doing this vital work, building on the up to £50m per year in new payments for the legal aid sector announced this summer.’
He added that the government will shortly launch an independent review into the sustainability of the legal aid system.