Increased fees too small a step to save the criminal defence profession, warns Law Society

The first criminal legal aid fee increases for 25 years are a small step in the right direction for beleaguered defence practitioners whose profession is under threat.

But a giant leap in investment is urgently required if criminal legal aid firms are to survive, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.

“A profession which was already perilously underfunded before the pandemic – with defence firms sinking at an alarming rate – has been plunged into even choppier waters by COVID-19,” said Law Society president Simon Davis.

“Social distancing requirements and overstretched courts mean work for criminal legal aid firms has fallen through the floor – leaving many hanging on for survival.

“In this light, the criminal legal aid fee increases announced by the Ministry of Justice today are a welcome small step in the right direction after two-and-a-half decades without a rise in funding.

“Measures include introducing a fee for work litigators do on sending cases to the Crown Court. As a result of our strong lobbying, this has been doubled from the fee proposed in the consultation and will now be the equivalent of four hours work. We are glad the Ministry responded positively to what we said on this point.

“But the future of the criminal defence profession – which is crucial to ensuring our adversarial system of justice acquits the innocent and convicts the guilty – is at stake and there is an urgent need for further government investment.”

As of 2 July, there were just 1,146 firms holding a criminal legal aid contract, already 125 fewer criminal legal aid firms than in 2019 and far fewer than the 1,861 firms that existed in 2010.

While the defence has not received a funding increase in 25 years, the CPS received an interim increase of 10% for prosecutors – worth up to £85m – last year.

Fewer new solicitors are choosing to enter criminal law, instead opting for other areas of legal practice which are more sustainable as a career choice.

Our heatmap shows how the number of criminal duty solicitors is diminishing and those that remain are ageing. There are a growing number of areas of the country which do not have any defence solicitors.

The Ministry of Justice announced the next phase of the criminal legal aid review will be independently led and launched later this year.

“We welcome the independent element of the review; it should not be the paymaster who dictates whether what they pay is sustainable,” said Simon Davis.

“But criminal legal aid lawyers need more support now or they may not be there when justice is needed in the future, leaving victims in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial.”

Notes to editors

  1. See our response and supplementary response to the consultation.
  2. Figures from our Justice on Trial 2019 report and UK Parliament website.

About the Law Society

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Press office contact: Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100