Cash injection to boost pay for criminal legal aid lawyers
'It remains to be seen whether the investment will be enough to halt the exodus from criminal defence work' – Law Society president
The government has published its response to Sir Christopher Bellamy QC’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid and launched a consultation on proposed changes to the system. The Ministry of Justice has announced an extra £135m will be spent on the legal aid sector every year to match the recommendation made by the independent review.
The investment will mean criminal legal aid lawyers will receive their biggest pay boost in a decade under wide-ranging reforms proposed by the government.
Deputy prime minister, lord chancellor and justice secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “We owe our whole legal profession – solicitors, barristers, court staff and judiciary – a debt of gratitude for keeping the wheels of justice turning over the last two years.
“That’s why we are accepting Sir Christopher Bellamy’s recommendation for an uplift in fees and a total of £135 million extra investment to ensure legal representation is there for those who most need it as we build back a stronger and fairer society after the pandemic”.
The announcement was welcomed by the Law Society. Society president, I. Stephanie Boyce, said: “After decades of decline, it’s a welcome relief to see the government commit to increase legal aid rates by the 15% that Sir Christopher Bellamy recommended – including for magistrates’ court and police station work.
“The Law Society and many others have been calling for investment for many years, and finally our concerns are being heard. This investment represents a welcome first step towards repairing our criminal justice system and ensuring defence solicitors are available when any of us may need them”.
Proposed reforms will aim to ensure professionals are better paid for the work they actually carry out and help free up capacity in courts.
Pay for lawyers representing suspects in police stations will rise by 15 per cent to tackle what the government described as a “perverse incentive” that “encourages lawyers to wait and represent defendants in Crown Courts because it pays better”. The proposals aim to improve the advice available in police stations and stop cases going to court unnecessarily, to help deliver speedier justice for victims.
However, Boyce highlighted there would be a delay in the pay increase: “It is disappointing that the fee increases will be delayed for a few months more after so many years of waiting and it remains to be seen whether the investment will be enough to halt the exodus from criminal defence work, but we hope this injection of cash can begin to turn the tide”.
“The proposed changes to fee structures are also welcome, as they should ensure that the fees paid better reflect the work required on cases. We are keen to work with government to ensure the funding increases are implemented swiftly,” added Boyce.
Under the proposals, more funding will also be available for the training and accreditation of solicitors and solicitor advocates and certain barriers relating to members of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) will be removed.
The government has said access to civil legal aid will open up for around two million more people in England and Wales as the income and capital thresholds for legal aid will be raised, and means testing will be removed altogether for some applicants.
Domestic abuse survivors who dispute house ownership will particularly benefit from the proposal that disputed assets will not count towards their wealth.
The financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants will also be removed, which will end the so-called ‘Innocence Tax’ which has forced some innocent individuals to pay their own legal costs, despite being acquitted. The government estimates three and a half million more people will have access to criminal legal aid at the magistrates’ court.
Legal representation will be made free for all under-18s and parents challenging doctors over withdrawal of their child’s life support, as will legal support for families at inquests where there has been a potential breach of human rights.