The Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA), represented by Adam Wagner of Doughty Street Chambers, were Interested Parties in and fully supported the legal challenge by the Law Society to the Government response to Lord Bellamy’s Criminal Legal Aid Review. In a landmark judgment handed down today the Court found that the Government acted unlawfully and irrationally when deciding not to implement the full funding recommendation in the Bellamy Review. The Court also confirmed a grim picture of a justice system which is “coming apart at the seams” and said that unless there is a “significant injections of funding” the justice system will soon be at the “point of collapse”.
Together with the Law Society, the CLSA and the LCCSA provided the Court with a large number of witness statements from solicitors up and down the country, at every level of seniority, describing the relentless, physically demanding and emotionally draining nature of criminal defence work and the chronic underfunding which has led to a crisis in the retention of solicitors who are leaving in their droves for better pay and conditions that can be found elsewhere.
The Government response to the Criminal Legal Aid Review utterly failed to grasp the extent of the crisis. Despite the review recommending a 15% increase to solicitors fees as “no more than a minimum starting point”, it increased fees by only 9% with a further 2% promised this year.
The ruling today confirms that the Government response to the review was so flawed as to be unlawful and irrational.
In today’s ruling Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Jay described the evidence we submitted from our members alongside the Law Society as “a mass of convergent evidence from honest, professional people working up and down the country”, which is “cogent”, “impressive” and “compelling”, and which “brings home [that] women and men working up and down the country at all hours of the day and night, in difficult and stressful circumstances, carrying out an essential service which depends to a large extent on their goodwill and sense of public duty”.
The Court’s damning summary of this evidence paints a grim picture, with it stating:
“In short, the evidence from solicitors working at grass-roots level is that the system is slowly coming apart at the seams. The system depends to an unacceptable degree on the goodwill and generosity of spirit of those currently working within it. New blood in significant quantities will not and cannot be attracted to criminal legal aid in circumstances where what is on offer elsewhere is considerably more attractive both in terms of financial remuneration and other benefits. Unless there are significant injections of funding in the relatively near future, any prediction along the lines that the system will arrive in due course at a point of collapse is not overly pessimistic”.
The CLSA and LCCSA now call on the Government to urgently implement Lord Bellamy’s full funding recommendation without delay, and before it is too late to save the country’s crumbling justice system.
CLSA Chair Daniel Bonich said:
“This is a hugely significant judgment. We welcome the ruling and thank the Court for its attention to this important case. We call on the Government to consider fully the implications including the Court’s recognition that the system is coming apart at the seams. Business as usual will not suffice. The Criminal Legal Aid Review recommended a minimum 15% increase to fees in November 2021 and, as the Court has recognised, it could not have anticipated the high interest rates and cost of living crisis that has happened since. It could not be clearer that the flawed government response to that report has meant that the crisis in the numbers of solicitors practicing legal aided Criminal Defence work has worsened not improved. We are an aging and endangered species and without significant investment we will become extinct rather abruptly. Without us, the Police and the Courts cannot function, denying justice for defendants, witnesses, and victims. The Government needs to act now to avert disaster”.
LCCSA President Edward Jones said:
“The system for publicly funding criminal defence is on its knees, as this welcome judgment makes abundantly clear. The Criminal Legal Aid Review unambiguously stated that the sum of £ 100 million needed to be injected into the criminal legal aid system immediately in order to ensure that publicly funded criminal defence work remained sustainable for those firms who provide it. The report described the recommended increase in funding as “the minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”. The government’s response was neither immediate, nor did it inject the sum of £ 100 million into the system. The Court has today held that the way in which the government approached the implementation of the report’s recommendations was so flawed that it was irrational, and therefore unlawful. We now hope that the government takes this opportunity to seriously address the crisis that is currently enveloping legal aid criminal defence firms and provide a new funding settlement that seeks to properly address the magnitude of the problem.”
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