The criminal legal aid sector will disappear if the government does not invest the bare minimum recommended by Sir Christopher Bellamy following his independent review, the Law Society told MPs today.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons justice select committee today, Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said it had been 25 years since criminal legal aid rates had been significantly increased. ‘Failing to meet the minimum means firms will continue to disappear until eventually the entire sector disappears,’ she said.
Opening the session, committee chair Bob Neill MP pointed out that ‘that there was a bit of a change in tack’ in Chancery Lane’s initial response to the government’s proposed £135m reform package, which went from welcoming to critical.
Boyce said the Society welcomed the Ministry of Justice’s embargoed news release. But when it received the government’s response and impact assessment, ‘it was very clear within the detail of that it was not a 15% overall package for solicitors. It amounts to 9%.’ She added: ‘If there’s one flaw in the package, then the whole package is flawed.’
The committee heard that £11m had been earmarked for experts, £3.2m for the Public Defender Service and £2.5m for training grants, which the Society wants ‘repurposed’ to get solicitors to the minimum they need to survive.
Boyce said the PDS was an expensive scheme and expensive to run. ‘We have already got an established skill set, an established structure and framework with the criminal defence solicitor profession.’
If rates are not uplifted by 15%, Boyce said the Crown Prosecution Service would continue to be more attractive than defence work and the inequality of arms will get worse.
Following Boyce’s evidence session, the committee heard from justice minister James Cartlidge MP, who was asked if the government’s proposals matched the central recommendation of the independent criminal legal aid review.
Cartlidge said: ‘Sir Christopher recommended £135m. We delivered £135m. We said we would increase by 15% most of the fees - we did not say all of them.’
On concerns that the extra cash will not land in practitioners’ pockets until 2023 at the earliest, Cartlidge said the government was moving as fast as it could. ‘In government terms, this is moving quickly.’
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