The Law Society has called for a legal aid taskforce made up of solicitors, barristers, prosecutors and judges to be set up after highlighting further examples of what it described as a criminal justice system on the brink of collapse.
The taskforce is one of 11 recommendations outlined in the Society’s latest report, Justice on Trial 2019: Fixing our criminal justice system, published today.
Christina Blacklaws, the Society’s president, said: ‘This is a system which is, without exaggeration, on the brink of the collapse. For victims and the accused, a journey through the system is akin to a nightmare. Justice and the rule of law are supposed to be core British values. If we fail to act now, we risk consigning that legacy to the history books - as thousands risk falling through the gaps. It’s time to fix our ailing criminal justice system. Before it’s too late.’
The report is littered with real-life case studies.
One solicitor highlighted the impact of youth court closures in London: ‘Kids are terrified of coming into Bromley. There are gangs from different boroughs alongside people who have no previous convictions.’
To illustrate an ageing profession, a 55-year-old solicitor told the Society he was the youngest duty solicitor on the Isle of Wight.
An example of unsustainable criminal legal aid fees is a case involving a man in his late 60s who had dementia. He was convicted after trial at the magistrates’ court and was committed to the Crown court for sentence. At the Crown court there were eight sentence hearings, each being adjourned for further information, a referral to mental health services, or a medical or psychiatric assessment. The defence solicitor had to liaise with experts to prepare reports, obtain prior authority from the Legal Aid Agency to ensure they would get paid, and liaise with counsel.
The solicitor had to keep in close and regular contact with the client, who found the process ‘utterly confusing’ due to the dementia. ‘He often did not open letters, and the solicitor had to go and visit him at home (about 10 miles from the office) before each hearing with a piece of paper with the date and time written on it, and make sure that he put it in his pocket because that was the only way he remembered he had to be somewhere,’ the report says.
The defence solicitor received a fixed fee of £232.82 for the case.
The Society urges the Ministry of Justice to procure independent analysis of the funding required to assure the criminal legal aid system’s long-term sustainability. A taskforce would evaluate any proposed changes.
Other recommendations include abolishing ‘warned’ and ‘floating’ lists to avoid wasting court time and costs, and replacing the Defence Solicitor Call Centre service with an automated system to improve efficiency.