The government’s decision to accept Sir Christopher Bellamy’s central recommendation to invest an extra £135m a year into the criminal legal aid sector has been welcomed by the main representative bodies for solicitors and barristers. However, a statement by the chair of the Criminal Bar Association suggests industrial action is still on the cards.
A consultation document detailing how the Ministry of Justice proposes to carve up the £135m cash has yet to appear. But in the meantime, the Law Society described the government's decision to commit to increasing legal aid rates by 15% as a ‘welcome relief’. Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: ‘The Law Society and many others have been calling for investment for many years, and finally our concerns are being heard. This investment represents a welcome first step towards repairing our criminal justice system and ensuring defence solicitors are available when any of us may need them.’
Practitioners are likely not to start seeing any cash until autumn as ministers insist they need to consult for 12 weeks on the proposals before introducing secondary legislation.
Boyce said: ‘It is disappointing that the fee increases will be delayed for a few months more after so many years of waiting and it remains to be seen whether the investment will be enough to halt the exodus from criminal defence work, but we hope this injection of cash can begin to turn the tide.’
She added that Chancery Lane is keen to work with the government to ensure funding increases are implemented swiftly and work with the Ministry of Justice on the details of the advisory board, which was announced today.
The Bar Council also welcomed today’s announcement. Mark Fenhalls QC, chair, said: ‘The challenges faced by the criminal justice system result from decades of underinvestment and will take years to repair but this announcement will help start to rebuild a criminal justice system that the public wants and deserves.’
However, a statement by the chair of the Criminal Bar Association suggests industrial action from 11 April is still on the cards.
Following his review, Sir Christopher Bellamy said the recommended £135m extra was the 'minimum necessary as the first step' to nurse the criminal legal aid system back to health, adding that that there was 'no scope for delay'.
The £135m represents a 15% increase for solicitors and barristers. The CBA says 15% falls 'far short' of what is required to enable criminal barristers to continue to practise in such an important area of work and balloted members on a 25% increase.
CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC said: ‘The CBA members have made it absolutely clear that without a substantial increase in criminal legal aid fees, the alarming exodus of prosecutors and defenders from criminal work will continue if not accelerate. Our members have already made it clear that the suggested increase in fees by Sir Christopher Bellamy will not be sufficient to retain enough criminal barristers to keep the wheels of justice turning and that means victims will be failed.’
On Twitter, the Secret Barrister noted the 'glorious doublespeak' in the government's press release: '"Put on sustainable footing for years" = "not even meet the immediate bare minimum urged by the independent inquiry we set up"'.