Legal aid

Government support needed now for criminal legal aid firms to survive

News the second stage of the criminal legal aid review is finally underway was today welcomed by solicitors’ leaders. The Law Society also warned government support is needed right now for criminal legal aid firms to survive, in addition to the structural increase in resources that will be needed for the long term sustainability of the sector.

The Ministry of Justice today announced that the next phase of the review will be chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, and launched in January with a report expected before the end of next year.*

“We are pleased to see that the second stage of the criminal legal aid review is underway,” said Law Society of England and Wales president David Greene.

“The review must focus on ensuring a criminal justice system that delivers a fair trial and justice for all, including defendants and victims. The role of defence solicitors is crucial to that. Legal aid practitioners must be paid properly, and their businesses must be economically viable, otherwise the system will collapse."

“We are happy to offer the chair whatever support he wants from us to understand in detail the challenges defence solicitors are facing.”

“Any benefits arising from the second part of the review are some way off and there is still an urgent need for interim relief before the review reports in order to provide the extra money that criminal defence solicitors are so desperately in need of,” added David Greene.

“Statistics produced by the government last week showed that Crown Court payments for the quarter to September 2020 were down 60 per cent year on year.** The Select Committee’s letter to the lord chancellor confirms that recovery in the courts has been much slower than the government intended, which is starving solicitors of urgently needed funding.***

“The government must demonstrate that it is committed to ensuring the position does not get worse while they work out how to address the crisis.”

As of 14 December 2020, there were just 1,122 firms holding a criminal legal aid contract, 149 fewer criminal legal aid firms than in 2019 and far fewer than the 1,861 firms that existed in 2010.****

Fewer new solicitors are choosing to enter criminal law, instead opting for other areas of legal practice which are more sustainable as a career choice.

Our heatmap shows how the number of criminal duty solicitors is diminishing and those that remain are ageing. There are a growing number of areas of the country which do not have any defence solicitors.

“The government’s recent spending review set out additional funding for many areas of the criminal justice system but more money for a crucial part of that system – criminal legal aid – was conspicuously missing,” said David Greene.

“Criminal legal aid firms continue to close at an alarming rate and many in the profession are questioning their future."

“The defence plays a crucial part in our criminal justice system and legal aid solicitors will have an integral role in helping clear the huge backlogs in our criminal courts."

“They need more support now or they may not be there when justice is needed in the future, leaving victims in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial.”

Notes to editors

*Ministry of Justice release

**Quarterly criminal court statistics July to September 2020

***See the Select Committee letter

****Figures from our Justice on Trial 2019 report and from questions submitted to the Ministry of Justice

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