The government’s £50m criminal legal aid offer is ‘woefully inadequate’, the Law Society has said as the profession reacted to the first tranche of proposed fee scheme reforms unveiled today.
Lord chancellor Robert Buckland said today’s proposals, taken together, represent an additional £32m-£50m for criminal legal aid, which will be broadly split evenly between solicitors and barristers.
However, the Law Society said the offer is not enough to prevent the criminal legal aid community becoming extinct.
Simon Davis, president, said: ‘We have warned time and again that the very existence of criminal defence practitioners is under threat. Unless the package is adjusted to address the depth and urgency of this crisis, then extinction may be firmly on the horizon.
‘There are increasingly large areas of the country where there are no defence solicitors available. The very notion of British justice is in jeopardy - with victims left in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial.
‘Not only will the shortage of practitioners lead to injustice, it is economically unsound. Defence lawyers help ensure the justice system runs efficiently - and in doing so, save the taxpayer money.’
The Society said today’s measures do not restore the position for litigators at the time the review was announced in 2018.
Davis said: ‘The offer on the table from the government is woefully inadequate. It cannot hope to provide a solution. Fewer new solicitors are choosing to enter criminal law as opting for other areas of legal practice is simply more sustainable as a career choice.
‘Meanwhile, a recent boost in funding for prosecutors means that many defence lawyers are taking jobs with the Crown Prosecution Service. This further diminishes the pool of those capable and able to provide for the defence; a crucial ingredient to ensure that our adversarial system of justice acquits the innocent and convicts the guilty.
'We have demonstrated the urgent need for greater action. The MoJ must overhaul its proposals to reflect the scale and speed of action that is required.
'Firms are withdrawing and collapsing as we speak - in greater numbers than ever before. This may only be an interim plan, pending the full review into the sustainability of the system, but investment is needed now - not in a year’s time. The government has an opportunity to pull us back from the brink by improving this package. I hope they choose to take it.’
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association welcomed the fact that the proposals represent ‘the first new money into the system for decades’. However, the proposed sums ‘are as insulting as they are derisory particularly given that the government has managed to find £85m for the CPS (including the promise of annual reviews), who are recruiting a further 390 CPS lawyers, the bar, and the police who are recruiting 20,000, all without the need for a wholesale review’.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association said the government's offer was insulting. For instance, the proposed hourly rate for perusal of unused material is based on hourly rates from the 1990s and does not take inflation into account.
The Criminal Bar Association welcomed some of the changes but Caroline Goodwin QC, chair, said: ‘100% of very little remains very little'.
She added: 'We are acutely aware of the crisis within our sister profession, namely solicitors, with whom we share a symbiotic relationship and without whom the criminal justice system simply could not function. We share their concerns. The forthcoming wider review must address the Litigators Graduated Fee Scheme to prevent legal advice deserts, address mass firm closures, the loss of highly experienced professionals performing a public service and the aging demographic of the profession. Absent this, access to justice and the rule of law is in peril.’
Criminal defence advocate Craig Tickner, vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, said: 'Current legal aid rates are simply out of date and are insulting to those who often end up working for free to keep the criminal justice system from collapse. These changes are simply fiddling while Rome burns and the Ministry of Justice must rapidly reconsider its approach.'
The Bar Council’s chair, Amanda Pinto QC, said: ‘These consultation proposals set out a modest, stop-gap improvement in specific areas of criminal defence fees. This is a welcome, first step, as the lord chancellor acknowledges, in recognising the crucial role of defence legal practitioners to the delivery of justice in an increasingly complex and onerous system.
‘All those involved in delivering criminal justice must be paid a fair and sustainable amount for the important work they do. We believe this interim consultation is an acknowledgement by the government that the current rates of pay for defence advocates and solicitors are far too low to maintain a functioning criminal justice system.’