Legal aid solicitors who specialise in criminal law have been reminded that they can exercise discretion when accepting cases if the work threatens the viability of their firm.
Guidance published today by the Law Society reminds criminal legal aid solicitors of their obligations under the legal aid contract to undertake certain work.
James Parry, chair of the Law Society criminal law committee, said: "The aim of this practice note is to remind solicitors handling criminal law cases that only duty work is obligatory, and all other work may be refused on the grounds that it is uneconomical."
Criminal legal aid solicitors are critical for ensuring that anyone accused of wrongdoing has a fair trial. Solicitors representing people accused of wrongdoing attend police stations at any time during the day or night under the Legal Aid Agency's (LAA) duty rota scheme.
The viability of firms is under threat as the remuneration rates for criminal legal aid work have not been increased since 1998.
James Parry added: "The reduction in funding for criminal legal aid work has created a situation where many solicitors are increasingly required to undertake work that is unremunerated or carried out at a loss. This presents a serious tension between continuing to undertake legally aided work and obligations to provide a proper standard of service to their clients or to conduct business in a financially sustainable manner. As a result, firms must carefully consider each instruction, in particular as to whether to accept or refuse such instructions will be contrary to their professional obligations.
"Many solicitors' practices undertaking this vital work in communities around the country are struggling to survive. Persistent cuts to rates can create a situation for providers where work cannot be carried out to the requisite professional standards without undermining the financial stability of providers.
"We recognised that solicitors need help in identifying circumstances which may warrant a refusal to undertake legal aid work and in doing so to ensure compliance with the Solicitors Regulation Authority's Code of Conduct. This new practice note sets out the situation as it exists under the contract.”
The practice note is aimed at all solicitors undertaking publicly-funded, criminal legal aid work, Compliance Officers for Finance and Administration (COFAs) and Compliance Officers for Legal Practice (COLPs) of firms and other entities providing those services.
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