On 15 March 2022, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced it would accept the recommendations of the final report of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid
(which was published on 29 November 2021) – but what does that mean?
The review report described a system that had been neglected, underfunded and was in immediate need of attention. The central recommendation from the review’s chair, Sir Christopher Bellamy, was that criminal legal aid funding should be increased to at least 15 per cent above present levels, which would represent additional annual funding of £135m. He emphasised that the sum was ‘in my view the minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect’ (para 1.38, page 10).
‘Legal aid sector put on sustainable footing for years to come
’, said the heading of the MoJ’s press release, but criminal practitioners are not of the same view. On Twitter, Stephen Davies, a solicitor at Tuckers Solicitors, described the announcement as ‘a masterclass in deception
’ and urged the profession to reject it. As noted above, the 15 per cent proposed uplift each year outlined by the government was the minimum that Sir Christopher believed necessary, but according to the MoJ, prison law will not even see that: ‘[A]t this stage, we are not proposing to uplift prison law fees in line with the uplifts for other areas of crime lower work’ (Government’s response to the criminal legal aid independent review and consultation on policy proposals
, CP 645, March 2022, para 217, page 64). Other recommendations in Sir Christopher’s report include the introduction of an advisory board, the expansion of the Public Defender Service, training grants and increasing the use of technology.
The announcement caused an outpouring of anger on social media regarding the funding and the Public Defender Service, but in parliament, Laura Farris, MP for Newbury, also raised wider issues of diversity in the profession and disparity of pay for women (Hansard HC Debates vol 710 col 782
, 15 March 2022). On the day that the response and press release were published, the Secret Barrister reminded us of the devastating effect that the failure to invest in the justice system has had, tweeting
that justice secretary Dominic Raab ‘has spent his career supporting the defunding of criminal justice. The policies he championed have led to victims of crime being failed on a daily basis. Innocents convicted. Courts gridlocked. Professionals leaving in droves.’
The consultation on the government’s proposals closes on 7 June 2022. Given the response, it is not surprising that industrial action proposed by criminal barristers in England and Wales will continue. On 13 March 2022, the results of a ballot by the Criminal Bar Association
saw 94 per cent of votes in favour of refusing to accept returns from 11 April 2022.