Criminal solicitors in London will refuse to take on low-paid cases this week in protest over the government’s legal aid reforms, adding pressure to the post-coronavirus pandemic backlog of criminal cases in England and Wales.
More than 100 lawyers at the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, which has about 800 members, have voted to stop representing defendants accused of burglaries and assaults on medical workers from Wednesday.
The move comes a month after criminal barristers began their own action aimed at forcing the government to take swift measures to improve legal aid rates.
The Criminal Bar Association announced in March that its members would adopt a “no returns” policy starting on April 11, meaning barristers would no longer take on last-minute cases when colleagues were unable to represent a defendant owing to diary clashes.
The impact of the barristers’ protest so far has been difficult to assess. Jo Sidhu, chair of the CBA, told members on May 9 that it was causing “significant and widespread disruption”. The CBA is set to hold a further ballot in June on whether to step up its action.
Jelena Lentzos, deputy director for legal aid policy at the Ministry of Justice, said at the end of April that “roughly 2 per cent to 3 per cent of cases” had been affected so far, adding that it was hard to say owing to court closures over Easter.
An independent report by former judge Sir Christopher Bellamy concluded last December that the government needed to inject a minimum of £135mn a year in legal aid fees to stop lawyers exiting the profession.
The government, which is consulting on Bellamy’s recommendations, has already promised a 15 per cent uplift in most of the legal aid budget, which adds up to a £135mn increase.
However, the CBA and the LCCSA have said this was not enough and called for an immediate 25 per cent increase in case fees.
The escalation of protests comes as the government seeks to reduce a backlog of crown court trials, which rose during the pandemic from about 40,000 in March 2020 to a record high of almost 60,000 by spring 2022.
HM chief inspectors concluded last week that criminal justice was “delayed, denied or disrupted” in too many instances in England and Wales.
Hesham Puri, president of the LCCSA, said solicitors could earn as little as £221.64 for each burglary case. “We have made it clear that we will no longer take in low-paid cases like burglaries and are not prepared to prop up this broken justice system,” he added.
Last week, Lord Ian Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, underlined the need to deal with the dispute between the bar and the government. He told the House of Lords that he had publicly encouraged ministers to accept Bellamy’s recommendations “and get on with it”.
James Cartlidge, the minister responsible for criminal legal aid, said the crown court backlog was falling following government action, adding that as a result of the reforms the typical criminal barrister would earn almost £7,000 extra per year.
“This is a significant pay rise and I encourage the Criminal Bar Association to work with us, rather than continue unnecessary disruption in the courts which will only serve to delay justice for victims,” he said in a statement.
The Ministry of Justice said: “We are increasing investment in criminal legal aid by £135mn a year, including a 15 per cent pay rise for solicitors working in police stations, magistrates’ courts and youth courts.”