Justice on the rocks after government overpromises and underdelivers on criminal legal aid
British justice is at risk after UK government assurances that its proposals on criminal legal aid funding matched the findings of an independent review turned out to be spin, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.
Sir Christopher Bellamy made clear in the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid that an immediate 15% injection of funding was the bare minimum needed to keep the beleaguered criminal justice system functioning and ensure access to justice for victims and defendants.
Government rhetoric suggested they had understood the seriousness of the crisis, but detailed examination of the consultation has revealed that the proposals fall substantially short of what they first appeared to be.
“On Tuesday 22 March, justice secretary Dominic Raab claimed to the House of Commons that he had ‘matched the Bellamy recommendations on the quantum of investment and on the… uplift for fees’,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.*
“Now we know that, for solicitors, the reality is different. We can no longer support the government’s proposals.”
After detailed analysis of the documents and meetings with Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials and ministers to check the accuracy of our conclusions, the MoJ has confirmed that the total value of the package of measures for solicitors amounts not to the often-quoted 15% but only 9%.** There is no commitment as to the scale of additional funding after the proposed restructuring of the Crown Court fee schemes.
I. Stephanie Boyce added: “The crisis in our criminal justice system has seen the backlogs in the courts spiral to unprecedented levels, leaving victims, witnesses and defendants waiting years for justice.
“Without necessary investment at least on the scale Sir Christopher has said is urgently needed the backlogs will continue, and it is likely that in five years’ time, we will no longer have a criminal justice system worthy of the name.
“The government response sends a clear message that the Ministry of Justice is simply not serious about tackling that crisis. While of course the proposed investment in police station and magistrates court work is much needed, the overall package is woefully short of the minimum identified as necessary to keep the network of criminal defence services functioning. It is no good just part of the system being economically viable if the system as a whole is not. That is why we cannot support this overall set of proposals.
“The number of criminal legal aid firms has almost halved in the last 15 years, and our research shows that duty solicitors are ageing and increasingly scarce in some parts of the country. In a growing number of counties, there are no duty lawyers under 35 doing this work – we are watching the criminal defence lawyer go extinct before our eyes.
“The crisis is acute already. Sir Christopher identified a sensible and affordable way forward. The government has botched its response. It is woefully inadequate.
“When considering whether to take up new criminal legal aid contracts, our members will need to think long and hard as to whether they believe there is now any prospect of a viable economic future in criminal legal aid.
“Sadly, unless the government changes tack, we no longer believe that there is.
“It is in the public interest, as a starting point, that the government meets the bare minimum required to keep the wheels of justice moving and delivers a new package on criminal legal aid.”
Notes to editors
- *Read Dominic Raab’s statement (see column 157)
- **See the Ministry of Justice impact assessment, page 12, table 3, recovered on 24 March 2022
- See the latest backlog figures
- As of February 2022, there were just 1,062 firms holding a criminal legal aid contract compared with 2,010 in October 2007
- See our duty solicitor heatmaps
About the Law Society
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Press office contact: Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100