Criminal duty solicitors: a perfect storm

“Our projections show the widescale collapse of duty solicitor schemes across England and Wales is ever more likely,” explains Law Society immediate past president Lubna Shuja.

Everyone accused of a crime has the right to a solicitor and legal advice, free of charge. This right should never be compromised.

Criminal duty solicitors offer this vital public service at any time of day, regardless of wealth, age or nationality.

Watch Kelly’s story: what it’s like being a criminal duty solicitor

However, the number of duty solicitors providing representation at police stations has fallen by 1,446 since 2017 – a 26% drop.

The workforce is getting older, and many legal aid lawyers are leaving criminal defence work because it’s no longer financially viable.

If this trend continues, we predict a further 618 will disappear by 2027, with 42 out of 43 police areas seeing a decline.

Already, we’re hearing of cases where:
  • our members are struggling to cover duty schemes  
  • police are forced to release suspects, as interviews cannot go ahead without legal representation

See the projections for your local area

This will only get worse unless the government acts to invest in criminal legal aid.

In 2022, the government rejected the advice of its own independent review by failing to implement a 15% fee increase for criminal legal aid solicitors.

In January 2023, we responded by taking the government to judicial review to test the lawfulness of this decision.

Now is the time to keep up the pressure and show the impact of the failure to invest in criminal defence solicitors on our justice system.

If you’re a duty solicitor, join Katie Hanson and Chloe Jay and share your own stories about working on the frontline in criminal defence.

Extra police officers and a huge backlog will put more pressure on the system

An extra 729,000 cases are set to enter the criminal justice system by 2030, because of 20,000 extra police officers (see National Audit Office 2021 report).

With more police officers and fewer duty solicitors, this will create a perfect storm in criminal justice that will affect victims of crime, witnesses and wider society.

Without additional funding, legal aid firms will not be able to meet the ever-growing demand.

Coping with the backlog

A survey of our members shows they would struggle to secure barristers or solicitor-advocates to represent clients in court and cope with the workload if the volumes of cases continue to increase, as they need to if the backlog is to be cleared.

In late 2021, we asked members how an increase in Crown Court cases would impact their firm's ability to manage workload and secure advocates:

  • 76% of firms would struggle with a 20% increase in cases
  • a substantial proportion of firms (39%) predicted they would struggle with securing advocates, even if case numbers to remain at current levels

We asked respondents how their firm would manage more Crown Court cases.

Although some firms would be able recruit more litigators (23%), support staff (18%) or advocates (14%), some firms cannot afford recruitment:

  • 77% would have to work extra hours to cover the additional work
  • 37% would be forced to turn away work 

A retirement timebomb is ticking, as fewer junior solicitors opt for criminal defence work

Fewer than 4% of duty solicitors are under 35 years old.

There are 0 criminal law solicitors under 35 in Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire or Worcestershire – and only one in Norfolk, Shropshire and Warwickshire.

The average age of a criminal duty solicitor was 49 in England and Wales in 2021. In many regions it’s even higher. (Based on mean average.)

In Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, East Sussex, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire, over 60% of solicitors are aged over 50.

Unless new solicitors are recruited into this sector, this could have a catastrophic effect on the criminal justice system.

How old are duty solicitors?

Click to expand our 2018 map

Data source: Law Society analysis of the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) Duty Solicitor Scheme data, cross referenced with the Law Society’s Criminal Litigator Accreditation Scheme membership data from 2017–2018. Please note – there is no data available in map for Rutland.

Is your area already facing a shortage? Look at our interactive heatmap to find out.

The map shows which schemes have fewer than seven duty solicitors.

How to use: Click and drag your cursor to move. Use your scroll-button or the zoom buttons to zoom in and out. Enable full-screen with the full-screen button. Only select one data option at a time.  

In London, duty solicitors are on multiple schemes, so it was not possible to analyse the data consistently with the data for the rest of the country


Progress so far

We amplify the powerful collective voice of more than 220,000 solicitors by advocating at the highest levels on the issues you’ve told us matter most.

Two-thirds of solicitors believe access to justice has worsened over the past 10 years, citing court delays and the decline in legal aid availability due to underfunding as the main barriers.

In 2018, our data showed that by 2023–2028 many regions could lack enough criminal duty solicitors, leaving individuals in need of legal advice unable to access justice.

We pressed the government to carry out an independent review into criminal legal aid.

In December 2021, Sir Christopher Bellamy published a report as part of the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review.

The key recommendation was an immediate 15% increase in funding for criminal legal aid (for litigators and advocates). 

Find out why we're taking the government to court on legal aid funding 

Other work

We've been hard at work to raise the concerns of our members on the sustainability of the criminal justice system at the highest possible level.

Our work in this area includes:

  • responding to the consultation on the independent criminal legal aid review, flagging the reduced number of duty solicitors
  • raising concerns in our response to the independent review on criminal legal aid
  • challenging the government over changes to the Litigator's Graduated Fees Scheme (LGFS) in the High Court
  • giving oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee on criminal legal aid and the disclosure of evidence in criminal cases
  • engaging with the Ministry of Justice's LASPO review
  • supporting members of parliament to table written and oral questions and providing briefings to them ahead of key debates

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