Fighting your corner: Criminal legal aid funding cannot wait
Solicitors working in criminal legal aid are in a “parlous” state. Remuneration should be “substantially increased as soon as possible”. A 15% increase would “be no more than a minimum starting point, to be kept under review going forward”.
These are the words of Sir Christopher Bellamy in his report and subsequent evidence to the Justice Select Committee, after carrying out an independent review to examine the overall sustainability of criminal legal aid and the principles of its fee schemes.
Proposals in the report
Sir Christopher’s report confirmed that the evidence backs up what we have long said.
Firms and individual solicitors are dropping out of the sector at alarming rates. It is very difficult to recruit new people. In 2018, nine counties had two or fewer duty solicitors under 35.
In 2021, this number had grown to 16 (56% increase over three years), and a growing number of duty schemes do not even have one solicitor for each day of the week.
This report is a substantial step in the right direction.
As well as a pay increase, it proposes structural reforms that should align payments much better to the work required on cases.
Sir Christopher is also keen to incentivise early preparation – on all sides – to ensure that cases which should be dropped do not proceed, and that where appropriate, guilty pleas are entered early. This will support solicitors in performing their vital role of securing fairness in the justice system at the critical early stages of criminal cases. Decisions at this stage can lead to cases being dropped where appropriate, or early admissions being made where that's in the client’s interests, to the benefit of suspects, victims and the system overall.
The ball is now in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) court as to how it responds, and it has promised to do so by the end of March. We know that funding for criminal legal aid was included within the Spending Review, although we don’t know the exact details.
One of the challenges we face is that the structural reforms will take time to develop. It's worth taking that time in order to make sure we get them right.
In our recent webinar, we outlined some of the key questions we will need to resolve in developing these schemes, and we would welcome your thoughts on those questions, and any other views you have on the proposals.
But as Sir Christopher made clear in the starkest language, our members cannot wait until all that work has been done before they see additional investment.
We also think there are other simpler and uncontroversial reforms that could be introduced sooner rather than later.
We are therefore urging the MoJ to ensure that its announcement in March includes early implementation of the following:
- An across-the-board increase in remuneration rates pending the structural reforms proposed
- Revised proposals for pre-charge engagement
- Introduction of a default assumption in favour of legal advice for youth suspects
- Removal of the means test anomaly for defendants who plead guilty in the Magistrates Court and are then committed for sentence to the Crown Court
- A guilty plea in the Crown Court where the Magistrates would have accepted jurisdiction should attract the proper Crown Court fee, not the Magistrates Court fee
If there are other measures which you think could be implemented quickly and would be worth asking for, please do let us know.
Advocating for our members
We have spoken, and will continue to speak, directly to ministers and officials at the MoJ about their next steps, and with other parliamentarians from across the political spectrum.
Our president, I. Stephanie Boyce, spoke at the recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid (watch Stephanie's contribution at 00:15:30).
We had a letter published in the Guardian and are continuing to look for further opportunities to press our case in the media.
It has been a long fight to get this far, and it's not over yet.
We need to persuade the MoJ to implement both the financial and structural recommendations in Sir Christopher’s report.
Whatever is announced in March, the fight to achieve that will continue.