Criminal defence lawyers in England and Wales could become extinct, the Law Society of England and Wales warned today as it unveiled new data showing a looming crisis in the number of defence solicitors.
“The justice system is facing a cliff edge scenario; criminal duty solicitors are part of an increasingly ageing profession, and government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering the field of criminal defence work,” said Law Society president Joe Egan.
“If this trend continues, in five to ten years’ time there could be insufficient criminal defence solicitors in many regions, leaving people in need of legal advice unable to access their rights.”
A Law Society heatmap shows that across Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, West Wales and Mid Wales, over sixty per cent of criminal law solicitors are aged over fifty years old*.
Meanwhile, in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and Worcestershire there are no criminal law solicitors aged under thirty five, with only one each in West Wales and Mid Wales, and only two in Devon.
A person who is arrested on suspicion of wrongdoing has the right to ask for the local ‘duty solicitor’, who can provide legal advice free of charge. Duty solicitors are available twenty four hours a day and are independent of the police.
The police station advice scheme was set up in the wake of a series of scandals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a significant number of convictions were overturned due to police misconduct against suspects. These solicitors protect suspects against inappropriate treatment, and protect the police against false allegations of such mistreatment.
“Criminal justice is at the heart of a democratic society and duty solicitors ensure a fundamental part of the justice system is upheld,” Joe Egan said.
“Twenty years without any increases in fees, and a series of drastic cuts have pushed the criminal justice system to the point where lawyers can no longer see a viable career doing this work.
“Access to independent, expert legal advice is an important right which ensures fair access to justice. If a suspect cannot access free advice and representation, a fair trial would be jeopardised, and cases would collapse.
“The Law Society is calling on the Government to take action and conduct an economic review of the long-term viability of the criminal legal aid system and to guarantee that criminal legal aid fees will rise with inflation.”
Notes to editors
*Across the whole profession, only 27% of solicitors are aged over fifty.
Anyone who is arrested and questioned at a police station has the right to ask for the local ‘duty solicitor’, or their own lawyer.
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