Crime Doesn’t Pay: Government Review of Criminal Legal Aid Shows a Decline in Criminal Defence Lawyers

May 20, 2021

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Evidence provided by leading legal organisations in the government’s criminal legal aid review has shown significant challenges facing criminal defence lawyers.

What does this mean?

In December 2018, the Ministry of Justice launched a review of criminal legal aid following concerns that the criminal justice system was “near collapse” due to a lack of funding. The review has progressed to its second stage called the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid. The review, chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, is considering how the system can be reformed to enable people to access criminal legal aid whilst paying lawyers and barristers a fair income.  

Evidence submitted to the review by organisations such as the Law Society has caused concerns among criminal legal aid lawyers. The number of law firms undertaking criminal legal aid work has decreased from 1,861 in 2010 to 1,122 in 2020. This is believed to be because of the reduced profitability of criminal legal aid work, with The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association calculated that criminal legal aid solicitors have suffered a 50% pay cut since 1996 when accounting for inflation. As a result, increasing numbers of solicitors and barristers are leaving this criminal legal aid industry to pursue a more profitable legal career. 

What's the big picture effect?

These issues stem from the government’s consistent underfunding of the criminal justice system. The money that criminal solicitors and barristers receive for taking on legal aid cases is often not sufficient to cover the costs of the case itself (transport, rent, insurance etc.) and a fair rate of pay. This became especially clear in 2018 when some barristers stopped working on legal aid cases and planned walk-outs. 

As a result, lawyers are choosing not to join, or not to remain in, the criminal legal aid sphere.  According to an article by Newman and Dehaghani, those who do remain often feel unable to provide the best service to their legal aid clients because of the lack of funding and resources. This raises questions about the extent to which legal aid clients can access justice. Their right to a fair trial may be put at risk if they are unable to access a criminal defence lawyer through legal aid, or if their criminal defence lawyer is unable to give their case the required attention. As such, the criminal justice system’s operation largely depends upon having enthusiastic and competent criminal legal aid lawyers.

In August 2020, the government promised to inject up to £51m in funding into the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, given the extent of the current issues, it is generally believed that this sum is not enough to ensure that the criminal legal aid system allows people to access justice – especially given the backlog in cases following the pandemic. There is hope that positive reform will take place following the Independent Review’s report and recommendations, which are expected to be published by the end of 2021.

Report written by Catrin Trefor

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