No justice without a defence: New data shows funding needed now

Justice is under grave threat as the number of criminal duty solicitors continue to fall despite being needed more than ever, according to new research unveiled by the Law Society of England and Wales today.

Criminal duty solicitors offer a vital public service. Any individual detained by the police has a right to a solicitor and advice free of charge. This is the case at any time of day, and regardless of wealth, age or nationality.

This dwindling capacity in the profession makes it highly challenging to meet the increased demand brought on by the huge backlog in the criminal courts – which predated the pandemic but was exacerbated by it – with another influx of cases expected as more police are recruited.

After years of underfunding and cuts – including 25 years without a significant rise in criminal legal aid rates – firms are facing a crisis in retention and recruitment.

New data shows the overall number of criminal duty solicitors outside London has fallen by around 7% between 2018 and 2021, and the number of duty solicitors aged 35 and under has plummeted by almost 35%.

Those who remain are ageing – only 4% are under 35 with almost a quarter are 50 or over – and several duty solicitor schemes in the UK only have one or two duty solicitors in total.

The mean average age of a criminal duty solicitor across England and Wales has risen from 47 in 2018 to 49 in 2021.

Some areas are particularly badly affected:

  • In Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, East Sussex, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire, over 60% of duty solicitors are aged over 50, the highest being 74% in Cornwall
  • In Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire there are no criminal duty solicitors aged under 35, with only one in each of Norfolk, Shropshire and Warwickshire, and two in Bristol, Cheshire, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, East Sussex, Greater Manchester, Herefordshire and Suffolk
  • Several areas have few duty solicitors. Only one in each of Berwick and Alnwick (Northumberland), Dolgellau (Gwynedd), High Peak (Stockport), Newark (Nottinghamshire) and West Berkshire. Only two in Scunthorpe (Lincolnshire), Southport (Merseyside) and Tynedale (Northumberland)

There are now just 1,067 firms holding a criminal legal aid contract compared with 1,652 in April 2012.*

A survey of our members shows they would struggle to secure barristers or solicitor-advocates to represent clients in court and cope with the workload if the volumes of cases continue to increase, as they need to if the backlog is to be cleared.**

“Some duty solicitor schemes are already stretched almost to breaking point and others will soon fail,” said Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce.

“Attending police stations to provide legal advice is poorly paid, often done out-of-hours after a full day in court or the office and involves dealing with people in highly stressful situations.

“This is despite it being a critical stage of a criminal case because what happens in the police station, and the careful judgements solicitors are required to make there, affect the entire case.

“It is little wonder that firms are struggling to recruit young lawyers and retain staff who can switch to the Crown Prosecution Service or other areas of the law for better pay and a vastly improved work-life balance.

“Each lost firm means fewer practitioners to respond to an ever-growing number of cases and ensure timely access to justice for victims and defendants.

“There can be no justice without a healthy defence profession and there can be no more delay in ensuring it remains available to all of us whenever we might need it.

“The 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates recommended in Sir Christopher Bellamy’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid should be implemented as soon as possible to enable the criminal defence profession to retain, recruit and meet increasing demand.”

Notes to editors

  • See our duty solicitor heatmaps. In London, duty solicitors are on multiple schemes, so it was not possible to analyse the data consistently with the data for the rest of the country.
  • See figures for firms with contracts 
  • ** Litigators are solicitors and other caseworkers who prepare a case for court, take instructions from clients, review the prosecution evidence, and interview witnesses for their client, among other tasks. Advocates – who can be barristers or solicitor-advocates – appear in the Crown Court where they question the witnesses and argue the case to the judge and jury

About the Law Society

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Press office contact: Nick Mayo | 020 8049 4100

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