Criminal justice

Criminal duty solicitors: a looming crisis

Criminal duty solicitors are being squeezed from multiple directions. This could leave many individuals unable to access their right to a solicitor and free advice.

Criminal duty solicitors offer a vital public service. Any individual detained by the police has a right to a solicitor and advice free of charge. This is the case at any time of day, and regardless of wealth, age or nationality.

There are now just 1,067 firms holding a criminal legal aid contract compared with 1,652 in April 2012.

“Each lost firm means fewer practitioners to respond to an ever-growing number of cases and ensure timely access to justice for victims and defendants,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.

More investment in criminal legal aid fees is needed to help:

Dwindling numbers of duty solicitors

Across England and Wales, many areas have fewer duty solicitors than days of the week.

Criminal defence solicitors have received no fee increase since 1998. Many lawyers no longer see a viable career doing this work, and firms are facing a crisis in retention and recruitment.

Our latest data shows the overall number of criminal duty solicitors outside London has fallen by around 7% between 2018 and 2021.

Those who remain are ageing – only 4% are under 35 with almost a quarter aged 50 or over – and several duty solicitor schemes in the UK only have one or two duty solicitors in total.

As members of the profession retire, this could leave a shortage of experienced practitioners, impacting on access to justice and on valuable police time.

Map: schemes with fewer than seven duty solicitors

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

Click to expand the map

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.

Retirement timebomb

The mean average age of a criminal duty solicitor across England and Wales has risen from 47 in 2018 to 49 in 2021.

In many regions the average age was even higher. In Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, East Sussex, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire, over 60% of solicitors are aged over 50, the highest being 74% in Cornwall.

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

Lack of new criminal solicitors

Between 2018 and 2021, the number of duty solicitors aged 35 and under has plummeted by almost 35%.

In Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire there are no criminal law solicitors aged under 35 – with only one in Norfolk, Shropshire and Warwickshire.

Our data suggests that the situation is getting worse.

In 2018, nine counties had two or fewer duty solicitors under 35. Over just three years, this number has grown to 16.

Map: areas with fewer than seven duty solicitors aged under 35

Is your area facing a future shortage? Click to expand the 2021 map
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.

Coping with the courts 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 

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

Progress so far

A step in the right direction?

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 is an immediate increase in funding for criminal legal aid (for litigators and advocates).

We’re campaigning hard to get our members this extra funding as soon as possible.

Find out more about the review

Click to expand the 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.

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 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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