As the government lays legislation in parliament today to spend an additional £23m on criminal defence advocacy fees, the Ministry of Justice has announced it will embark on a wider review of criminal legal aid payments. The Law Society welcomed the news, saying it was encouraged to see that the ministry had listened to its call for a wide-scale review of all the fee schemes.
Changes to Crown court fees for advocates, known as the advocates' graduated fee scheme, will come into effect from January, along with a 1% increase in all fees across the scheme. The ministry has outlined how the money will be allocated in a consultation response document, published today.
However, the ministry says it is going one step further and will conduct a 'fundamental review' of criminal legal aid payment schemes, which includes considering criminal legal aid throughout the 'life cycle' of a criminal case.
Writing in the Gazette today, justice minister Lucy Frazer says: 'Starting in January, we will work with you, the criminal defence profession, to gather the necessary evidence as part of this robust and wide-ranging review. The contribution of the leadership and wider profession to the AGFS has been invaluable thus far and I look forward to building on this close cooperation.
'The amended AGFS is the first step in a much larger process of reform. We want to ensure that criminal defence remains a sustainable and attractive career, and that individuals continue to have access to justice.'
The Society's head of justice, Richard Miller, said: 'It is undoubtedly true that the current schemes do not appropriately meet the needs of the current system. For it to be successful, this exercise must come with a commitment to increase spending on criminal legal aid or else the exercise risks being no more than an expensive re-arrangement of current fees akin to the re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
'We are pleased the MoJ has acknowledged the concerns we raised in our response to its consultation and has considered the analysis we commissioned from Professor Abigail Adams. The ministry has not only made the changes the Law Society asked for, it has also agreed to bring forward the across-the-board 1% increase in rates.'
The ministry says it will consider wider concerns raised in its AGFS consultation, as well as recent reports on criminal legal aid and disclosure by the House of Commons justice select committee and attorney general.
The justice committee said in July that it was 'particularly concerned' about the lack of remuneration for defence practitioners to review unused material and the impact of changes to the litigators' graduated fee scheme, which was the subject of a successful High Court challenge by the Society.
The attorney general's disclosure review, published last month, stated that the current fees structure for police station attendance is not designed for a large amount of pre-charge work by defence practitioners. It suggested that the ministry should review how such work is remunerated if a more formal pre-charge engagement model is created.