Solicitors’ leaders are warning that immediate action is needed to save the justice system as criminal legal aid law firms continue to go under at an alarming rate.
The criminal legal aid system is reaching breaking point, even before the impact of COVID-19 hits home, says the Law Society of England and Wales.
Government figures show that, as of 3 June, there are just 1,147 firms now holding a criminal legal aid contract.
Worryingly, that means there are already 124 fewer criminal legal aid firms than the 1,271 in 2019, a drop of 10%, and far fewer than the 1,861 firms that existed in 2010.*
Simon Davis, the Law Society president, said: “The Ministry of Justice must take action to address this extremely disturbing fall in the number of criminal legal aid law firms – a situation which is only likely to spiral in the current circumstances.
“If the criminal defence sector collapses, the government will be forced to rebuild it via a public defence service, which would cost the taxpayer far more and is not what a proper system of justice deserves.”
Government references that in excess of £400m is available to civil and criminal legal aid practitioners, despite attempts by the Law Society to point out the figure is not what is seems, does nothing to help tackle the crisis in the justice system.
There are increasingly large areas of the country where there are no defence solicitors available.
While those facing domestic abuse and homelessness or who need legal support around mental health issues all face being left without the advice and representation they need.
As long ago as 4 May, Alex Chalk MP, Under Secretary of State for Justice, told the Justice Select Committee that proposals from the Law Society were under "active consideration".
But still no news.
“After years of underfunding, legal aid professionals are at their wits end,” added Simon Davis.
“Criminal legal aid practitioners were in crisis before the coronavirus pandemic hit. They have continued to keep the wheels of justice turning, at risk to their own physical, mental and financial health, but get nothing back in return.
“Ministers will be failing in their duty to protect the justice system if they fail to act fast to shore it up.”
The Ministry of Justice’s criminal legal aid review accelerated areas consultation closes tomorrow (17 June).
Notes to editors
*Figures from our Justice on Trial 2019 report.
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