The government must do more than it has proposed to save the criminal legal aid market from collapse, the Law Society has said.
The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing criminal legal aid fees and unveiled the first tranche of proposals in February. The Society said at the time that the £50m offer was woefully inadequate. It now says the landscape has changed dramatically because of the coronavirus and the February package is unlikely to provide anything close to what is necessary to save firms from unrecoverable financial difficulties.
Since lockdown measures were imposed, the Society says the number of arrests and cases going through the courts has plummeted. The backlog of outstanding cases has risen dramatically. Crime firms have reported up to an 80% drop in income.
The Society says: 'The delay in implementing the proposals has meant the need for interim relief has now become more urgent than ever. In particular, if firms are now going to have to go significantly further into debt in order to survive the current crisis, they need some assurance that they will have a means of repaying this debt when we emerge from it.'
Criminal solicitors have told the Society that they will have to repay government loans and, as more courts reopen, bring staff out of furlough to deal with an increased workload. 'This will mean finding sufficient funds to pay staff wages at a time when their finances are severely challenged. Some firms tell us that in fact they see themselves heading into difficulties much further down the line. Where a firm has just been paid for a large case undertaken prior to the pandemic they may have sufficient funds to see them through until 2021. However, it is at that stage that they will start to have problems.'
The Society adds that the number of criminal legal aid firms is continuing to fall. In 2010, there were 1,861 firms doing criminal legal aid. This figure dropped to 1,271 last year and currently stands at 1,147. The Society says more will follow.
The government is asked to urgently reverse an 8.75% fee cut imposed in 2014. The Society again submits that there is no logical reason for 100% of the cracked trial fee to be paid to the advocate in a case, and not the litigator. There should be a fee uplift for youth court work and dealing with vulnerable clients as solicitors require additional time for this work. Payments on account should be allowed for approved disbursements in appeals and review cases.
Society president Simon Davis said: 'We have made clear since the start of the pandemic that criminal legal aid firms are facing a triple whammy - immediate cashflow problems, short to medium term permanent loss of income and the pre-existing crisis of sustainability. Unless the government addresses all three, there is a serious risk of widespread market collapse.'