Real-terms cut to legal aid leaves no viable future for criminal defence
The review led by Lord Bellamy sought to solve the crisis in the financial viability of criminal legal aid work but the government’s actions will make the ongoing crisis worse.
On 30 November 2022, the UK government published its final response to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid.
We are extremely concerned that for many of our members there could be no viable future in criminal defence practice.
It is a tragedy for the British justice system that years of political neglect have forced us unavoidably to this conclusion.
“Dominic Raab has made the wrong decision in not implementing the immediate 15% criminal legal aid rate rise for solicitors. The independent review recommended this a year ago as a bare minimum to prevent the criminal defence sector from collapsing,” said our president Lubna Shuja.
“Instead, he is imposing a real-terms cut on fees that have been frozen since the 1990s.”
Numbers of duty solicitors and criminal legal aid firms continue to fall at an alarming rate – with several police station schemes on the verge of collapse.
Access to justice – including the fundamental right to representation at the police station – is in serious peril and the government is ignoring the threat.
Our analysis suggests that the number of duty solicitors will decrease by another 19% by 2025 (687 fewer duty solicitors) and the number of firms doing criminal legal aid work will decrease by 16% (150 fewer firms), leaving many people without access to a lawyer when they desperately need one.
Until the government chooses to address the collapse of the criminal justice system, victims will continue to be let down and talk of being tough on crime will be nothing but hot air.
The Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid was the last hope that the Ministry of Justice would take the crisis seriously and that there could be a viable future in criminal defence practice for our members. Instead Raab has thrown down a gauntlet to the profession.
Solicitors are under a professional obligation to make sure they manage risks to their financial stability and business viability (under 2.4 and 2.5 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Firms).
We’re not suggesting that solicitors’ firms give up criminal defence practice at once.
Each firm should make its own assessment as to its own individual circumstances.
However, we strongly recommend that firms take steps to reduce their reliance on criminal defence practice, in order to give themselves realistic commercial options.
What this means for junior lawyers
Our warning to those entering the profession and considering a career in criminal defence practice is that, given the situation with criminal legal aid, it is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to generate a reasonable professional income from this work.
For us, the fight is not over.
We're urging the lord chancellor to either rethink his decision not to increase criminal defence solicitors’ legal aid rates by the recommended bare minimum or face a judicial review.
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You can also write to your local MP, and highlight the situation in your local area:
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