Criminal duty solicitors: a growing crisis

Criminal duty solicitors offer a vital public service, but are being forced out of the sector. Find out how we’re working to support struggling legal aid firms.

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

Law Society wins High Court battle

The High Court has ruled in the Law Society’s favour in our judicial review against the Ministry of Justice.

Evidence from our members showed “the system is slowly coming apart at the seams”. Now, the government must rethink its irrational decision on criminal legal aid funding before the system collapses.

Find out more about our judicial review victory

Duty solicitors in England and Wales are on call day and night to offer this vital public service – on some of the lowest rates of pay in the legal profession.

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

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

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

If this trend continues, this could leave many individuals unable to access their right to a solicitor and free advice.

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

Nearly half (48%) of defendants appearing in the magistrates’ courts on imprisonable summary offences did not have legal representation recorded on their case in the first half of 2023. This had risen from 35% during 2022. (According to management information requested by the Centre for Public Data.)

Why are duty solicitors struggling?

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


What we're doing

We amplify the powerful collective voice of more than 200,000 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 took 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.

As well as escalating our fight for fair funding to the High Court, key work from our campaign has included:

Get involved

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.

Share our message to the Lord Chancellor on social media

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