Criminal legal aid solicitors have suffered a 50% real-terms pay cut over the past 25 years, a government-commissioned review of the sector has been told.

Using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association adjusted 1996 rates for inflation and compared what the equivalent rates would be now and what they actually are. The shocking comparison is laid out in the association’s submission to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid’s call for evidence, which closes today.

For magistrates’ court fees, the London rate for preparation was £47.25 in 1996 and £45.35 in 2021. The 1996 rate adjusted for inflation would be £90.70 – showing the 2021 rate to be a 50% real-terms reduction. To attend court with assigned counsel, the 2021 rate is £31.03 - 47% down on the inflation adjusted 1996 rate.

The association paints a detailed picture of the challenges that overstretched and underpaid solicitors regularly face within all parts of the criminal justice system – poor communication from police, disclosure frustrations, courts overlisting cases – and highlights the knock-on effect these have on quality and efficiency.

London is home to a quarter of criminal legal aid firms and 28% of duty solicitors. The association says that, unlike smaller cities and market towns, few police stations are located close to magistrates’ courts and three prisons are located next to each other in a remote corner of the capital. With no payment for travel or waiting time, the association says such challenges make crime work more unprofitable than elsewhere.

The association said: ‘Our members tell us they are on the brink. The pandemic struck at a time when we were already brought low after more than a decade of fee cuts, falling prosecution rates and declining number of solicitors and firms.

‘The independent review will report some three years after promises were first made to invest in criminal legal aid. For our members this is a watershed moment. If fees are merely restructured for greater efficiencies, we anticipate that those dedicated solicitors who have been instrumental in sustaining the criminal justice system during [the pandemic] will take their cue and depart the stage.’

The review, chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, is expected to report by the end of the year.