Ministers could face a legal battle over their refusal to increase legal aid rates for criminal defense lawyers in England and Wales by the minimum recommended in an independent review.
The Law Society, the professional body for lawyers, claims there has been an “unlawful and unreasonable” failure to implement the minimum 15% rise recommended by Christopher Bellamy as necessary to preserve the future of the criminal justice system.
It has issued legal proceedings after putting the government on notice in a letter sent to the justice secretary, Dominic Raab, in January, warning it would take the case to the high court if it did not review the decision.
Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society, said she had no choice but to take legal action after Raab, who also holds the posts of lord chancellor and deputy prime minister, refused to budge and rejected a mediation offer to resolve the matter . “The government has failed to adequately address the serious concerns we have raised about the collapse of the criminal legal aid sector after years of chronic underfunding,” he said.
“We have therefore applied to the high court for permission to challenge the government’s implementation of the recommendations made in the sector’s independent review.
“We believe that the UK Government’s decision not to increase defense solicitors’ legal aid rates by the recommended minimum of 15% is unlawful and unreasonable. It has had, and will continue to have, dire consequences for access to justice and puts the future of the criminal justice system at risk.”
The Law Society says more than 1,000 lawyers who provide representation and advice to people in police custody have left their jobs since 2017. It predicts that by 2025 there will be 19% fewer lawyers and 150 fewer firms providing criminal law. legal work assistance (down 16%).
Last year, the government agreed to a 15% increase in legal aid fees for criminal defense lawyers for most court cases after they went on their first ever indefinite strike. The same salary increase was given to prosecutors last month.
The Law Society was outraged that lawyers were not offered parity. It believes its members cannot legally strike, but has threatened to advise them against taking on criminal defense work.
Suja said: “The government has found the money for defense and prosecution lawyers, but they are unprofitable lawyers, who are the backbone of the criminal justice system. Lord Bellamy described their situation as more “disturbed” and rates for the work they do are stuck in a period of time in the mid-90s.
“The criminal justice system is collapsing around us because of gross underinvestment and irrational policy making. The Law Society will do everything in our power to get a fair deal for defense lawyers and ensure access to justice for all.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We expect our reforms to criminal legal aid to increase investment in the legal profession by £85m every year, including a pay rise of more than 15% for lawyers working in police stations and courts . It would not be appropriate to comment further on ongoing legal action.”