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High Court showdown over criminal legal aid

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(12 December 2023)

Today marks a watershed moment for criminal legal aid as a High Court showdown opens between the Law Society and government over solicitors’ fees.

In court 3 of the Royal Courts of Justice, Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Jay will hear a judicial review over the government’s decision not to raise criminal legal aid fees by the minimum 15% recommended by the independent criminal legal aid review.

Counsel for the Law Society will argue that by ignoring the independent review’s recommendations, the government’s decision was irrational, lacked evidence-based reasons and breached the constitutional right of access to justice.

It has been two years since the Bellamy review recommended a minimum 15% uplift in fees for both solicitors and barristers, as soon as possible, to nurse the criminal legal aid sector back to health. In its final response to the review, published a year later, the Ministry of Justice said fees to solicitor firms would rise by around 11%.

The Society has previously told MPs that £30 million would fill the gap between the government’s offer and the review’s 15% recommendation. In February 2023, the director of public prosecutions secured extra cash from HM Treasury to restore parity in fees between prosecution and defence barristers. Treasury chiefs had been told an extra £30m was needed to address the disparity, which arose from the £54m deal that the Ministry of Justice, under justice secretary Brandon Lewis MP, agreed with the criminal bar to end long-running industrial action. 

Criminal defence practitioners are pinning their last remaining hopes for survival on the outcome of this week’s hearing.

While the government established an independent criminal legal aid advisory board since the Bellamy review, solicitors told its chair, Her Honour Judge Deborah Taylor, last month that the sector is shrinking every year and they are losing faith that it can be saved.

The London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and Criminal Law Solicitors Association are named as interested parties to the judicial review. The hearing will last for three days.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)