The Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales is set to ballot members this month, over government inaction on legal aid. This follows a report last November that found the legal aid system was at least £135 million short in funds to run effectively.
The legal aid system, which provides lawyers for those who cannot afford them, has seen a decline in funding and workers over the last two decades.
A report by former judge Christopher Bellamy QC identified a severe drop in spending since the 2000s, which has led to a decline in lawyers willing to work in legal aid.
According data from The Law Society, the number of legal aid firms has fallen from 1,861 in 2010, to 1,090 in 2021. Almost 15,000 solicitors worked in such firms in 2015, but by 2019, that number had fallen to less than 12,000.
Bellamy’s report demonstrated how the low number of duty solicitors, who need often work unsocial hours, has made 24/7 coverage impossible in many places.
Law Society figures show that 32 of the country’s 212 duty schemes have seven or less duty solicitors (with seven being the bare minimum for full weekly coverage). Of those 32, seven schemes have three or less duty solicitors.
The lack of workers is unsurprising considering the large real term drop in funding from legal aid’s three income sources: Police Stations, Magistrate’s Courts, and Crown Courts.
November’s report found Police Station fixed fees to have fallen by approximately 33% since 2008, while Magistrate’s Court rates declined by almost 50% between 1996 and 2021. The basic Crown Court fee for Category C and D offences also experienced a 33% drop since 2008.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) conducted a survey of criminal barristers this January, following the report’s findings. 94% of respondents agreed to the call that, by February 14th, the justice secretary James Cartlidge should commit to a full response.
CBA chair, Jo Sidhu QC, said barristers were “unequivocal that [they] would be prepared to take action if [Cartlidge] failed to give such an undertaking.
“The deadline has now passed and we have received no undertaking. Following a meeting of the CBA executive this evening it has therefore been resolved that we will now proceed to a ballot for action to be issued on 28 February.”
Cartlidge argued, “It is disappointing the CBA has decided to move to ballot on disruptive action, particularly after our constructive meeting last Thursday and our plans to meet again next week.
“Rushing our policy development and consultation as the CBA demands risks poorer outcomes and leaving us open to legal challenge. I urge them to instead to continue to engage in this vital work alongside other representative bodies.”
The CBA responded to this claim, tweeting: “We will continue to engage with Gov but the recommendations of CLAR are crystal clear – urgent funding is required. Rep bodies on both side of the profession are agreed; urgent funding does not need an extended consultation. This action is to save the CJS [criminal justice system]. Delay does not.”
Philip English, is a member of the YCL’s Birmingham branch