Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

The Criminal Legal Aid Review: interim announcements

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The Government announced, way back in December 2018, that it planned to undertake a review of the Criminal Legal Aid scheme. This was a response to a fierce campaign (including instances of strike action) by the legal professions complaining about the very poor rates of pay now offered for criminal legal aid work, and evidence that – at those levels of pay – the future prospects for a criminal legal aid service looked bleak.

Although, under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2013, the scope of the Criminal Legal Ad scheme had not been reduced in the same way as the civil legal aid scheme had been, Government austerity measures certainly bit on the pay and conditions of those undertaking criminal legal aid work.

The announcement of the review in December 2018 provided some acknowledgement by the Government that all might not be well. But setting up a review can be used as a mechanism for postponing hard decisions. As the result of further lobbying by criminal legal aid practitioners, the Government decided that it would offer an accelerated set of interim measures to try and mollify the legal profession – at least in the short term.

On 21 August 2020 the Government’s decisions on the accelerated measures were announced. In making the announcement, the Lord Chancellor stated that the changes would represent an injection of around £51m into the Criminal Legal Aid Budget. Set against a total spend (in 2019-2020) of around £820m on Criminal Legal Aid it is only a modest increase (just over 6%). The additional resources will be used to deal with a number of detailed issues such as how litigators and advocates are paid for work on unused material and how advocates are paid for work on paper-heavy cases.

In announcing his decision, the Lord Chancellor commented:

“[The] accelerated areas are only the first step towards the wider review, which we always intended would result in reforms that would support a sustainable and diverse market of practitioners. Since then, Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief concerns about the sustainability of the market. …

“Fundamentally, we want to ensure that the market can: meet demand now and into the future; provide an effective and efficient service that ensures value for money for the taxpayer, and continue to provide defendants with high-quality advice from a diverse range of practitioners. …

“Having reflected on whether our original approach to delivering the review was the right one to achieve these overarching aims, I have decided that the next phase of the Review should involve an independently-led review that will be ambitious and far-reaching in scope, assessing the criminal legal aid system in its entirety, and will aim to improve transparency, efficiency, sustainability and outcomes in the legal aid market. It will consider working practices and market incentives and how these can drive efficient and effective case progression and deliver value for money for the taxpayer. Planning is in progress and I plan to launch it as soon as possible after Parliament returns [in September 2020].

“Alongside the independent review, we will also prioritise work to ensure that the fee schemes … are consistent with and enable wider reforms that seek to modernise the criminal justice system, in line with our original aims for the review. Given the rapid changes in ways of working that have been adopted across the justice system to support recovery in the courts, it is essential that the criminal legal aid system actively enables the defence profession to play its role in these efforts.”

So a lot of further change may be anticipated. In the meantime, long-suffering criminal legal aid practitioners will soldier on, hoping for better times ahead.

Details of the announcement and the details of the Government’s changes – which will be brought into effect by regulations in August 2020 – see https://consult.justice.gov.uk/criminal-legal-aid/criminal-legal-aid-review/

Written by lwtmp

August 25, 2020 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Chapter 10, Chapter 5

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