Independent criminal legal aid review – Law Society response
We’ve responded to the independent criminal legal aid review (ICLAR) call for evidence – a major review of criminal legal aid led by Sir Christopher Bellamy.
The aim of the review
The review will consider the criminal legal aid system as a whole, focusing on five key themes: resilience, transparency, competition, efficiency and diversity.
Specifically, the review seeks to make sure that criminal legal aid:
- provides high-quality legal advice and representation
- is appropriately funded, and provides value for money to the taxpayer
- responds to user needs both now and in the future
- contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system
In our response, we warn that the criminal defence profession could collapse if the government does not increase funding.
Large areas of the country face a future with few or no duty solicitors available to represent defendants, with adverse consequences for victims, witnesses, and the effectiveness and efficiency of the criminal justice system.
We’re particularly concerned about the following issues.
Not only has there been no cost of living increase in criminal legal aid rates since the 1990s, but there was an 8.75% cut to fees in 2014.
Shortage of trainees and young solicitors
There’s a dearth of young solicitors willing to go into criminal law because of the low fees. Despite it being vocationally of interest, students saddled with debt opt for more lucrative areas of the law.
Reduced numbers of duty solicitors
Our duty solicitor heat map from 2018 showed that in five to 10 years’ time there could be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions, leaving individuals in need of legal advice unable to access justice.
Reduced number of criminal legal aid firms
The impact of the lack of any fee increase for over 20 years has also manifested itself in an increasing number of crime firms leaving the market:
- in 2010 there were 1,861 criminal legal aid firms
- in 2019 there were 1,271
- in June 2020 there were 1,147 and
- the latest figures published in April 2021 show 1,090 firms
Competition for staff
Other government-funded organisations such as the Crown Prosecution Service are able to offer considerably higher salaries and benefits to both newly qualified and experienced solicitors than private criminal defence firms.
What this means for solicitors
Criminal legal aid firms are closing down and the ageing body of criminal defence solicitors is not being replaced with younger lawyers.
We’ve voiced our concern that if the government does not support defence solicitors now, they will not be there when justice is needed in the future, leaving victims in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial.
The consultation closes on Friday 28 May.
Evidence will feed into the independent review, which forms the second part of the Criminal Legal Aid Review. A report is expected before the end of 2021.