Suzanne Townley

News Editor, Solicitors Journal

Government's criminal legal aid package revealed to be 'woefully inadequate'

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Government's criminal legal aid package revealed to be 'woefully inadequate'

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The Law Society has withdrawn its support for the government's recently announced package of measures 

The Law Society has said it “can no longer support” the government’s recently announced proposals on criminal aid funding after detailed analysis of the package of measures for solicitors has revealed the value of the government’s proposals fall below the 15 per cent funding injection recommended by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid.

British justice is at risk and assurances from the government that their proposals on criminal legal aid funding matched the findings of the independent review “turned out to be spin”, said the Law Society.

After detailed analysis of relevant documents and meetings with Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials and ministers to check the accuracy of the Law Society’s conclusions, the MoJ has confirmed the total value of the package of measures for solicitors do not amount to 15 per cent recommended by the review, but only 9 per cent. There is also no commitment as to the scale of additional funding after the proposed restructuring of the Crown Court fee schemes.

Sir Christopher Bellamy made clear in the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid that an immediate 15 per cent funding injection was the bare minimum needed to keep the criminal justice system functioning and ensure access to justice for victims and defendants.

“On Tuesday 22 March, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab claimed to the House of Commons that he had “matched the Bellamy recommendations on the quantum of investment and on the… uplift for fees”,” said Law Society president, I. Stephanie Boyce.

“Now we know that, for solicitors, the reality is different. We can no longer support the government’s proposals.”

Boyce added: “The crisis in our criminal justice system has seen the backlogs in the courts spiral to unprecedented levels, leaving victims, witnesses and defendants waiting years for justice.

“Without necessary investment at least on the scale Sir Christopher has said is urgently needed the backlogs will continue, and it is likely that in five years’ time, we will no longer have a criminal justice system worthy of the name”.

Boyce said the government’s response sent “a clear message” that the MOJ “is simply not serious about tackling that crisis”.

“While of course the proposed investment in police station and magistrates court work is much needed, the overall package is woefully short of the minimum identified as necessary to keep the network of criminal defence services functioning. It is no good just part of the system being economically viable if the system as a whole is not. That is why we cannot support this overall set of proposals”, said Boyce.

Boyce expressed concern for the future of the criminal legal aid firms and availability of support for victims and defendants. “The number of criminal legal aid firms has almost halved in the last 15 years, and our research shows that duty solicitors are ageing and increasingly scarce in some parts of the country. In a growing number of counties, there are no duty lawyers under 35 doing this work – we are watching the criminal defence lawyer go extinct before our eyes.

“The crisis is acute already. Sir Christopher identified a sensible and affordable way forward. The government has botched its response. It is woefully inadequate”.

Boyce said members would “need to think long and hard as to whether they believe there is now any prospect of a viable economic future in criminal legal aid” when considering whether to take up new criminal legal aid contracts.

She warned: “Sadly, unless the government changes tack, we no longer believe that there is.

“It is in the public interest, as a starting point, that the government meets the bare minimum required to keep the wheels of justice moving and delivers a new package on criminal legal aid.”