The Law Society has urged the government to ‘listen to more than just the loudest voices’ over legal aid fees as the bar's representative bodies and government were criticised for not involving solicitors in negotiations to avert a one-day walkout.
Criminal barristers last week overwhelmingly voted in favour of the Criminal Bar Association’s proposal for action over prosecution fees. On Wednesday the CBA, Bar Council, Crown Prosecution Service, Ministry of Justice and attorney general announced a deal that barristers were urged to accept.
On prosecution fees, the CPS has agreed that all fixed fees will be increased to the level of the advocates’ graduated fees scheme (AGFS) from September. All refreshers will be paid from the second day of trial, rather than the third day. On defence fees, the MoJ says the issues of unused material, fees paid for cracked trials and uplifts in paper-heavy cases will be considered quicker than planned.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said it was encouraging that ‘slowly but surely’ the government is recognising the damage that underfunding the criminal justice system has done.
However, she warned: 'Good firms are collapsing. Young lawyers are rejecting this area of law. In parts of the country, the criminal defence solicitor is going extinct, and the possibility of a fair trial is critically endangered. The government needs to listen to more than just the loudest voices if it is serious about addressing this impending catastrophe.’
CBA chair Chris Henley QC said the association had been negotiating hard with the government for several weeks, which included 'many hours negotiating in private'.
Mark Troman, junior vice-president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, said it was unfortunate that 'solicitors' representatives have not been invited to take part in these secret negotiations when such a large proportion of work in the Crown court is actually conducted by solicitor-advocates, an omission which inevitably further complicates any resolution of the contentious fee arrangements'.
Reactions to the proposed deal suggest it could yet be struck down. One barrister said: ‘The 2019 deal involves no new money at all. We voted for direct action in support of demands for immediate fee increases, not the promise of a speedier review.’
This week's announcement stated that ‘further work is underway to understand the areas the solicitors’ profession would like to prioritise but it is understood that unused material is of common interest’.
Troman said: 'We are being asked to review far greater volumes of unused materials than were envisaged when the Litigators' Graduated Fee Scheme was set up in 2008 and must also be fairly paid for this additional burden.
'When a case cracks before trial the preparation of that case is wasted and often underfunded. Solicitors are significantly affected by this wasted preparation but often it is caused by events beyond their control. If we are not to be paid for time worked then a page count proxy of some sort must be part any payment mechanism in both the litigators’ and advocates’ fee schemes, and welcome its return.'