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Criminal legal aid lawyers work for just £1.50 per hour

Legal aid lawyers earning less on successful defences than would be allowed under the London Living Wage scheme

22 June 2015

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A recent case concerning the possession of indecent images of a child has highlighted how government reforms to legal aid are penalising successful defences.

Lawyers at London firm Bindmans, recently instructed by a defendant in a case involving an online relationship between two teenagers and indecent images, were paid less than the London Living Wage to successfully defend their client.

Following the breakdown of the relationship, the defendant was charged with possession of indecent images of a child - the girl was under 16 at the time some of the pictures were sent - despite her sending the images willingly.

Having pleaded guilty at his first court appearance on advice from other lawyers, the defendant was promptly informed he must sign the Sex Offender Register. As a young adult the defendant found himself subject to contact restrictions with his peers.

Sara Williams of Doughty Street Chambers was instructed by Bindmans to argue before the magistrates' court that the guilty plea should be withdrawn and a not guilty plea entered, following incorrect advice being given by the defendant's previous legal representative.

Bindmans requested that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review their decision to prosecute the case. However, it was more than six months after the firm took over the case - and almost eleven since charges were filed - before the CPS completed the review. Just a matter of weeks before the trial date, the CPS decided it was not in the public interest to pursue the case.

London living wage

In the interim, Williams travelled a total of 640 miles to and from court hearings at a cost of £128. In addition, 70 hours were spent by the legal team fighting the case. Since the CPS' decision to discontinue was prior to trial, no 'trial fee' was incurred, meaning the total litigator fee amounted to £330.33 plus VAT.

That meant Bindmans' Mike Schwarz and Samantha Broadley worked for just £4.66 per hour. Meanwhile, Williams received a total of £194 plus VAT (or £66 after travel costs), a rate of just £1.50 per hour.

This successful conclusion attracted up to £8.00 per hour less than what is deemed to be a 'liveable wage' in London, which was raised to £9.15 per hour in November 2014.

Bindmans estimate that, should this case have gone to trial, the litigator fee received would have totalled approximately £670, and around £1,600 for Williams. Therefore, by saving the public purse and avoiding wasting court time, legal aid lawyers are finding themselves penalised on costs.

The recent announcement that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is to implement a second 8.75 per cent cut to litigator fees, due for implementation in January 2016, look set to exacerbate the problem.

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