Today the government had published the long-awaited report by Sir Christopher Bellamy into Criminal Legal Aid.
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association would like to thank Sir Christopher for his work on this report. The report is a detailed one and we will take some time to reflect on it before we respond more fully. We do however recognise the great care and skill shown by Sir Christopher and his team in not only preparing the report, but in engaging and listening to the profession as part of the process.
The report, taken with the appendices are over 400pages. We, like our members, will want to consider it carefully. What is clear however is that Sir Christopher has identified a number of real issues facing the criminal legal aid profession:
1. The decline in providers and solicitors
2. The impact of the lack of fee reviews for decades
3. Training, recruitment, and retention problems
4. The lack of profitability and financial stability for defence firms
It is clear from Sir Christopher’s report that the current position is not sustainable. We note his conclusion that substantial investment and reform is required.
His recommendations include:
1. An increase of at least £100m per annum into criminal legal aid providers (LGFS and Lower crime). This is suggested to be a 15% increase and goes beyond simply reversing the 2014 cut.
2. An increase of £35m per annum for AGFS
3. Changes in the structure of police station and Crown Court fee schemes to remove perverse incentives and better reflect work done.
4. The creation of an Advisory Board to review Legal Aid regularly.
5. Changes to the LAA to reframe them to a primary duty of supporting resilience of criminal legal aid, whilst reducing bureaucracy and maintaining proportionate control of costs.
It is clear to us, even at this stage, that Sir Christopher has taken great care in preparing his report. We await the government’s response and look forward to engaging with the Government on how to take his recommendations forward.
We would also observe that his welcome recommendation of a first step of a minimum additional 15% investment into Criminal Legal Aid is significant, but with inflation now closing in on 5%, and 25 years of inflationary erosion of income, will only go part of the way to restoring the balance of our system. In real terms, fee income under inflation alone has fallen by 8-10% since the Review was first announced some 3 years ago. We fear that a 15% increase will not attract many suppliers and solicitors back to the profession, without whom there can be no hope of clearing the backlog in our Courts. When considering the report, we would urge the government to not only listen to the comprehensive evidence, and cogent analysis and reasoning of Sir Christopher, but to go further and make a once in a generation effort to restore our criminal justice system.
Daniel Bonich, Chair CLSA
Jonathan Cousins, Vice Chair