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£135m more needed each year to save criminal legal aid

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(16 December 2021)

An extra £135m a year is needed to nurse the criminal legal aid sector back to health following years of neglect, a government-commissioned review has concluded.  

Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, who chaired the criminal legal aid review, said the £135m figure was not an ‘opening bid’ but what is needed for the criminal justice system to function effectively and respond to the amount of work that will arise from the government’s campaign to recruit 20,000 police officers, and reduce the court backlog.

‘I would emphasise that the sum of £135m is in my view the minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect,’ Sir Christopher said in the 160-page report, published yesterday afternoon. Noting that it has been three years since the government announced the review, he said there is ‘no scope for further delay’.

However, defence practitioners will have to wait a while to see if the government accepts Sir Christopher’s central recommendation.

In a written ministerial statement, lord chancellor Dominic Raab said the government will consult before taking any decisions. ‘It is right that such a detailed report receives the thorough consideration that it deserves, while giving the legal profession an indicative timeline. Therefore, I intend to publish a full response no later than the end of March 2022 alongside a consultation on all policy proposals,’ Raab said.

The review also calls for an independent advisory board to be created, which would report regularly to the lord chancellor, support policy development and think ahead about system improvements. The board would not be a ‘pay review body’ of the kind that exists in other public sectors, Sir Christopher stressed.

The Law Society welcomed the review’s recommended funding boost but voiced concern over whether it will be enough to make the criminal defence sector truly sustainable.

Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: ‘Hundreds of criminal legal aid firms have shut their doors over the past decade with no significant increase in criminal legal aid remuneration rates since 1996. We recognise this proposed uplift in funding does not undo all the damage of those 25 years and echo Sir Christopher’s view that it is the “minimum necessary” first step.’

Boyce added: ‘With a huge backlog of criminal cases to be heard and increased police numbers predicted to lead to more arrests, criminal defence solicitors are needed more than ever, but those that remain are already stretched to breaking point. Given the damage of the past and the current demands on the system, we share Sir Christopher’s view that further investment may still be needed to ensure the criminal justice system can function effectively and tackle the backlogs.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)