People accused of serious crimes could be deprived of a fair trial and victims left in limbo if the government does not invest in the criminal defence sector, the Law Society has told a government-commissioned review.
In a detailed submission to the Independent Criminal Legal Aid Review, Chancery Lane says a growing number of criminal legal aid firms are closing their doors or struggling to retain talent, while not enough younger solicitors are coming through to replace an ageing population, especially on duty solicitor schemes.
The review is told that 1,050 firms currently hold criminal legal aid contracts and that 5% of firms dropped out of the market since June 2020. This follows a fall of nearly 40% over the preceding decade.
The ‘break even point’ for a fee-earner – the fees a firm must generate per matter before any profit – is twice most of the hourly criminal legal aid fee rates. Firms are losing talent to the Crown Prosecution Service, which offers better pay, pension and work-life balance. Universities, aware of the challenges of criminal defence work, are reluctant to encourage students to become criminal defence lawyers.
Several duty solicitor schemes have fewer than seven lawyers - seven being the minimum required to ensure a different lawyer is on duty for a full 24 hours every week.
The Society says: ‘It may be tempting to think that there are sufficient firms and crime solicitors in the system now, so there is no need to worry about supply, however in reality we are standing on a cliff edge. Unless action is taken soon, we will find ourselves facing a situation where entire swathes of the country have very few - or no - criminal solicitors left to represent people who may be facing extremely serious charges that could potentially lead to imprisonment or other penalties that could have a damaging and long-lasting impact on their lives.’
Suggested recommendations include an independent ‘fee review board’ responsible for setting fees annually and government-funded training grants to increase the number of criminal legal aid trainees.
Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: ‘If defence solicitors are not supported now, they will not be there when justice is needed in the future, leaving victims in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial… The review must recommend that the government provides the investment needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector and must do so before it is too late.’
The government has said it will respond to the review’s findings by the end of the year.