Report shows decline in criminal legal aid providers
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: Legal aid
Figures published in a report to support the work of the recently announced Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid show a decline in the number of criminal legal aid (CLA) firms and an ageing cohort of practitioners who specialise in the work.
The compendium of data, published last week, was compiled with statistics from the Legal Aid Agency, the Crown Prosecution Service, The Law Society and The Bar Council. It shows that from 2014/15 to 2019/20, a total of 290 CLA solicitors’ firms left the system (table 1.1, page 8).
According to The Law Society, over the past 10 years around 75 CLA firms have been closing each year. ‘It is alarming but not surprising to see the decline in the number of criminal legal aid firms over the past decade given the lack of government support they have received,’ said Law Society president David Greene. The Law Society believes that more cash is needed urgently in order to ‘halt the terminal decline in the number of criminal defence firms’.
In the five-year period that the statistics in the report cover, the total number of solicitors working in CLA declined from 14,790 in 2014/15 to 11,760 in 2018/19 (table 2.1, page 23). Over two-thirds (2,080 out of a total of 3,030) of those individual solicitors who stopped undertaking CLA work did so during the first year of that period (2014/15–2015/16). The report observes that a small number of larger firms closed their doors to CLA work that year and that this ‘might explain the larger number of solicitors leaving’ in those 12 months (see para 69, page 20). Carol Storer, LAG’s interim director, believes the review ‘needs to establish the reasons behind the loss of these firms’. She added: ‘It is surely not a coincidence that they abandoned the system after the turmoil caused by the policy changes led by the then justice secretary, Chris Grayling.’1Grayling’s reforms included the announcement of a competitive tender system for police station work as well as an 8.75 per cent CLA fee cut from 20 March 2014, with a further cut of 8.75 per cent planned for June 2015 – see Legal Aid Handbook 2015/16, LAG, 2015, page 417.
The chair of the Criminal Bar Association, James Mulholland QC, believes CLA practitioners are a ‘disappearing profession. Forty-five per cent of full practice criminal barristers are 45 years old and over. The average age of a criminal duty solicitor across England and Wales is 47.’ He fears that there will not be sufficient experienced lawyers to deal with the backlog of cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Membership of the independent review panel was announced at the end of January 2021. Chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, it includes LAG author and barrister Kate Aubrey-Johnson and Crispin Passmore, the former policy director at the Legal Services Commission. Sir Christopher is expected to submit his recommendations on CLA to the lord chancellor later this year.
 
1     Grayling’s reforms included the announcement of a competitive tender system for police station work as well as an 8.75 per cent CLA fee cut from 20 March 2014, with a further cut of 8.75 per cent planned for June 2015 – see Legal Aid Handbook 2015/16, LAG, 2015, page 417. »

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Description: LAG
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