The government is to pump a further £135m into criminal legal aid and has begun consulting on changes to the system as well as the means test for both criminal and civil cases.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced this week that it accepted the recommendation in Sir Christopher Bellamy QC’s criminal legal aid review, published in December, for the extra cash.
Sir Christopher described it as “the minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”.
In its response to the review and consultation on changes resulting from it, the MoJ proposed a 15% uplift for most schemes “as soon as possible”, injecting an additional £115m a year into the system.
The other £20m a year will go on “longer term investment, including reform of the litigators’ graduated fee scheme, the youth court, and the wider sustainability and development of solicitors’ practice”.
Sir Christopher said that expenditure on criminal legal aid reached a peak of £1.2bn in 2004/05 but, by 2019/2020, had fallen to £841m, a real-terms decline of 43%. Some fees for solicitors have remained unchanged for 25 years.
The separate consultation on the means test said the income and capital thresholds would be raised to make 3.5m more people eligible for criminal legal aid at the magistrates’ court, and more than two million more people eligible for civil legal aid.
The financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants will also be removed, ending the so-called ‘innocence tax’.
The MoJ promised a restructuring of the fee schemes “so they properly reflect the work that legal professionals do today”, and the creation of an advisory board to represent “all parts of the profession” and help shape criminal legal aid policy. The latter was a key recommendation of Sir Christopher.
Other proposed reforms would allow members of CILEX to become duty solicitors without requiring any further qualifications and expand the Public Defender Service.
Introducing the consultation, Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab (pictured) said: “We will work with the professions and regulators on how we can collectively promote greater diversity across the system.
“We are also exploring new ways of delivering remote legal advice in police stations, removing barriers to this type of practice for people with caring responsibilities – which disproportionately impacts on women.
“We will also gather views on how and where innovative new technology can be used positively, and to greater effect.”
There will be a review of the standard crime contract “to reduce burdens and barriers to innovative ways of doing business”.
The MoJ has put aside £2.5m for grants for training contracts for criminal solicitors, and said it would support solicitor-advocates to gain higher rights of audience.
The Criminal Bar Association revealed on Sunday that 94% of members voted in favour of refusing to accept return work under the advocate graduated fee scheme from 11 April “unless government agrees to the measures necessary to safeguard the long-term sustainability of the criminal Bar”.
After the announcement, Jo Sidhu, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the money would not affect its plans: “The CBA members have made it absolutely clear that without a substantial increase in criminal legal aid fees, the alarming exodus of prosecutors and defenders from criminal work will continue, if not accelerate.
“Our members have already made it clear that the suggested increase in fees by Sir Christopher Bellamy will not be sufficient to retain enough criminal barristers to keep the wheels of justice turning and that means victims will be failed.”
The main professional bodies welcomed the extra cash, with Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce describing it as “a welcome first step towards repairing our criminal justice system”.
She said: “Twenty-five years of real-terms cuts have seen the number of criminal legal aid firms almost halved since 2007 [from 2,010 to 1,062] and our heatmaps show that duty solicitors are ageing and increasingly scarce in some parts of the country.”