Long-awaited pay rise proposed for criminal legal aid lawyers
On 15 December 2021, a report recommending increased remuneration rates for criminal legal aid solicitors was published as part of an independent review chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy.
“The recommended increase in remuneration rates demonstrates substantial progress in the right direction”, said our president, I. Stephanie Boyce.
“If you’re arrested, you need high-quality advice in the police station and the magistrates’ court, to help ensure you get a fair trial and a just outcome.”
Challenges facing legal aid
The last time pay rates for criminal legal aid lawyers were increased significantly was during the 1990s.
Over the last nine years, the number of criminal legal aid providers has decreased by one third.
In the review, Sir Christopher drew out evidence supporting our view that the system is not currently economically sustainable, for instance:
- rates are about one third less than they were 13 years ago
- defence rates are around 30 to 55% below those considered reasonable by the Crown Prosecution Service for committals/trials in the magistrates’ court
- “structural underfunding” in the criminal justice system as a whole has contributed to difficulties, such as a backlog of cases
The key recommendation is an overall increase in funding for criminal legal aid (for litigators and advocates) as soon as possible.
This would increase annual pay rates at least 15% above present levels.
Adopting our recommendations
Other recommendations in the report echo our submission to the review or are what we’ve often advocated for in the past:
- applying the magistrates’ court standard fee scheme to the police station and Crown Court
- setting up an independent advisory board to help develop a more joined-up approach to criminal legal aid, reporting regularly to the lord chancellor
- that police station work, magistrates’ court work and Crown Court work should be broadly sustainable, rather than dependant on firms relying on other work streams to subsidise their legal aid work
- introduce a weighting system in police station work, so that experienced lawyers are rewarded for dealing with serious cases
In line with our recommendations, the report rejects:
- competitive tendering
- expanding the Public Defender Service (PDS), as the current system is “sound in concept but suffering from severe underfunding”
Our initial view
This is a welcome and substantive step in the right direction, but after 25 years of freezes and cuts, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to stem the exodus of firms from criminal legal aid, or to attract new young lawyers into the sector.
We’re glad that Sir Christopher categorised this proposed increase as the minimum necessary, and we share his view that more investment is likely to be needed.
However, we’re concerned about how long it will take for our members to benefit from these proposals and we’re continuing to press the Ministry of Justice to get the money to our members as soon as possible.
While we welcome the proposed increased funding, we reiterate the need for investment across the entire criminal justice system, to tackle the case backlog in courts and ensure access to justice for victims, witnesses and defendants.
It is vital that the whole of the criminal defence profession remains economically sustainable.
The government has also published a ministerial statement, committing to publish its response and a consultation by the end of March 2022.