The coronavirus crisis could precipitate the collapse of criminal legal aid as we know it – the Law Society of England and Wales has warned today as it submitted a supplemental response to a consultation on interim proposals of the criminal legal aid review.
Many practitioners hoped the so-called ‘accelerated items’ would provide urgent relief from the pre-existing deepening crisis in the criminal legal aid profession – but they fall short of addressing the situation even before the pandemic struck.
This week the Law Society warned that there were already 124 fewer criminal legal aid firms than in 2019 – a drop of 10%, and far fewer than the 1,861 firms that existed in 2010.
“As a result of the pandemic, work for criminal legal aid firms has fallen through the floor – leaving many hanging on for survival,” said Simon Davis, Law Society president. “Without urgent intervention, there is danger that many more duty solicitor schemes will face imminent collapse.
“We have made clear since the start of the pandemic that criminal legal aid firms are facing a triple whammy: immediate cashflow problems, short to medium term permanent loss of income, and the pre-existing crisis of sustainability. Unless the government addresses all three, there is a serious risk of widescale market collapse.
“The accelerated items proposed by government were already insufficient to match the scale of the problem – firms urgently need the funds originally promised, as well as additional support to meet the new crisis.”
Fees for defence practitioners have not been increased in cash terms in 25 years. In recent years, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has received an interim increase of 10% for prosecutors – worth up to £85m – with a promise of annual reviews.
In real terms, these measures when announced did not even restore the position for litigators at the time the review was announced in 2018. With the collapse in the number of cases going through the system as a result of the pandemic, the proposals are worth even less.
Our heatmap shows how the numbers of criminal solicitors have diminished in recent years – many areas have a majority of duty solicitors over the age of 50, and very few under the age of 35. Fewer new solicitors are choosing to enter criminal law and are opting instead for other areas of legal practice as this is simply more sustainable as a career choice. There are duty schemes that are unlikely to survive the year.
Simon Davis continued: “There are a growing number of areas of the country which do not have any defence solicitors. This puts the very notion of British justice in jeopardy – with victims left in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial.
“We have repeatedly warned the existence of criminal defence practitioners is under threat – and with it, the ability of the accused to access legal representation.
“In these challenging times, it is vital that the wheels of justice continue to turn. To preserve access to justice and the rule of law, legal representation must be available to those without the means to provide for it.
“The government is working hard on so many fronts to get us through this crisis – but we must ask that criminal legal aid is not allowed to fall by the wayside. There is no other time to act but now.”
In light of the current situation with COVID-19, we are asking the Ministry of Justice to do the following:
- urgently ensure that firms’ cash flow problems are addressed through adjustments to how the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) pays for work
- provide relief for law firms from business rates
- immediately reverse the previous cut of 8.75% for criminal legal aid
- improve the broader package of accelerated measures and bring to the fore the focus on sustainability in the context of the criminal legal aid review (see notes to editors)
- also look urgently at the sustainability of the civil legal aid system
Notes to editors
- The government consultation can be found on the GOV.UK website.
- The Law Society has already proposed three ways the government could improve matters, which are:
- an across the board increase in rates
- a higher fee for sent cases
- alignment of the principle of paying 100% for cracked trials
- See our response
- Immediate action needed to save the justice system (16 June 2020)
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Press office contact: Liam McCafferty | 020 8049 4028