For years the Government has promised to review the amount of funding available for criminal legal aid. The problems identified by the legal profession at the time have now come to fruition. There is a destructive rate of attrition, and neither side of the profession are able to retain hardworking and dedicated individuals. The average age of a criminal solicitor is now 49. There are legal aid “advice deserts” across the country where individuals are unable to access lawyers. The Criminal Bar has lost 25% of its specialist practitioners in the last 5 years. The issue of retention directly harms the diversity of the profession and the representation of minority groups. It will continue to impact the necessary representation of society on the judicial bench in the future. Criminal law is no longer an attractive or realisable profession for individuals without independent wealth.
There is a backlog of nearly 60,000 Crown Court cases. Prior to the pandemic, the number of court sitting days had been cut in a cost saving exercise. Victims, defendants, and witnesses are now being forced to wait for justice for years. Justice delayed is justice denied.
An independent report commissioned by the Government was published in November 2021. It concluded that to ensure the continued functioning of the Criminal Justice System solicitors and barristers required an urgent and minimum increase to current payment rates of 15%. Other vital reforms were also suggested and both the Law Society and Criminal Bar Association have requested Government implement those changes as a matter of urgency.
Since November 2021 those changes have not been implemented and there is no clear timetable in place leading to their implementation. Without a resilient, skilled workforce the justice system is under threat.
The Society of Labour Lawyers stands in solidarity with all those campaigning for the survival of the Criminal Justice System, for access to justice and fair fees. We recognise that criminal lawyers are now placed in an impossible position. A civil society depends on the hard work and dedication of these legally aided practitioners, many of whom will go on to serve as tomorrow’s Judges. This government’s chronic neglect of the Justice System has grave consequences for public safety, for victims, for defendants and for the wider functioning of our democracy.