Ministers could face a legal battle over their refusal to increase legal aid rates for criminal defense solicitors in England and Wales by the minimum recommended in an independent review.
The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors, claims there has been an “unlawful and irrational” failure to implement the 15% minimum increase recommended by Christopher Bellamy as necessary to sustain the future of the criminal justice system.
It has issued legal proceedings after it put the government on notice through a pre-action letter sent to the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, in January, warning that it would go to the high court if he did not rethink the decision.
Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society, said it had been left with “no choice” but to take legal action after Raab, who also holds the positions of lord chancellor and deputy prime minister, refused to budge and rejected an offer of mediation to resolve the issue. “The government has failed to satisfactorily address the serious concerns we raised about the collapse of the criminal legal aid sector following years of chronic underfunding,” she said.
“We have therefore applied to the high court for permission to challenge the government’s implementation of the recommendations made in the independent review of the sector.
“We believe the UK government’s decision not to increase criminal defense solicitors’ legal aid rates by the recommended minimum of 15% is both unlawful and irrational. It has had, and will continue to have, dire consequences for access to justice and puts the future of the criminal justice system in jeopardy.”
The Law Society says more than 1,000 duty solicitors, who provide representation and advice to people arrested by the police, have left the job since 2017. It predicts that by 2025 there will be 19% fewer duty solicitors and 150 fewer firms doing criminal legal aid work (a fall of 16%).
Last year the government agreed to a 15% increase in legal aid fees for criminal defense barristers for most crown court cases after they went on the first indefinite strike in their history. The same pay rise was granted to the prosecution barristers last month.
The Law Society has been angry that solicitors have not been offered parity. It believes its members cannot legally strike but has threatened to advise them not to take on criminal defense work.
Shuja said: “The government found the money for defense and prosecution barristers but are short-changing solicitors, who are the backbone of the criminal justice system. Lord Bellamy described their situation as more ‘parlous’ and the rates for the work they do are stuck in a mid-90s time-warp.
“The criminal justice system is collapsing around us due to wholly inadequate government investment and irrational policy making. The Law Society will do everything in our power to get a fair deal for defense solicitors and ensure access to justice for all.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We expect our reforms to criminal legal aid will increase investment in the solicitor profession by £85m per year, including a fee increase of more than 15% for solicitors’ work in police stations and magistrates courts. It would be inappropriate to comment further on ongoing legal action.”
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