Make or break moment for justice and the criminal defence profession

Solicitors’ leaders have warned that woefully inadequate government funding proposals could break the criminal defence profession and threaten justice for all.

Today (7 June), the Law Society of England and Wales submitted its response to the government’s consultation on criminal legal aid.

“The government’s proposed funding is not enough to maintain a criminal defence profession to uphold justice,” said Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“Our criminal justice system is in crisis. There has been no meaningful increase in criminal legal aid rates of pay in 25 years. Legal aid rates have instead been cut, while also being eroded by inflation.

“Without serious and committed intervention, the viability of our criminal justice system is at risk. Access to legal representation – which is essential to ensure people’s rights are respected, trials are fair, and miscarriages of justice are prevented – will no longer be assured.

“Victims, witnesses, defendants, and wider society will all suffer if the system is unable to ensure prompt, fair trials which convict the guilty and acquit the innocent.

“The independent review commissioned by the government recommended a 15% increase in remuneration for solicitors as a bare minimum to keep the wheels of justice turning, but the government proposals amount to just 9%, which is woefully inadequate.

“This will not reverse the damage to our criminal justice system, persuade young lawyers that they could have a viable career in this sector, prevent the closure of more criminal legal aid firms, or enable the courts backlog to be addressed.

“Criminal courts are crippled by a lack of judges, court staff, prosecutors and defence lawyers. Cases are not progressing as they should, with victims and defendants continuing to face unacceptable delays. If the work remains uneconomic, defence firms will not have the capacity to undertake the increased volume of cases that will be necessary to clear the backlog.”

Only 4% of duty solicitors are aged under 35 and 81% of junior lawyers who responded to a Law Society survey said criminal law is not an attractive long-term career.*

The number of firms doing this work has roughly halved. As of February 2022, there were just 1,062 firms holding a criminal legal aid contract compared with 2,010 in October 2007.**

“This is a make or break year for the criminal defence profession. It is the year in which firms must decide whether to take up new criminal contracts,” added I. Stephanie Boyce.

“Many firms were waiting for the independent review and the government’s response to it to decide whether there was any hope of a future that is not just a bit better than the current situation, but that is truly sustainable.

“Whether or not the government makes up the overall package for solicitors to the 15% recommended increase will be a decisive factor for many firms and individuals deciding whether there is a viable future in criminal defence work.”

Notes to editors

Read our full response to the consultation

* See our duty solicitor heatmaps and survey results

** Figures for firms with criminal legal aid contracts

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100

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