An injection of cash is urgently needed to halt the terminal decline in the number of criminal defence firms, the Law Society has warned.
Latest figures show more than 750 criminal legal aid firms have either closed their doors or given up practice over the past decade.*
“Defence solicitors are crucial to ensuring a criminal justice system that delivers a fair trial and justice for all, including defendants and victims,” said Law Society of England and Wales president David Greene.
“Legal aid practitioners must be paid properly, and their area of business must be economically sustainable, otherwise the system will collapse.
“It is alarming but not surprising to see the decline in the number of criminal legal aid firms over the past decade given the lack of government support they have received.
“While the second part of the criminal legal aid review is now under way and will hopefully provide the structural increase in resources needed for the long-term sustainability of the sector, any benefits from it are some way off
“We have consistently called on the government to recognise the consistent failure to increase payments for over 20 years and that an immediate increase is a necessity to provide criminal defence solicitors with the additional funds they so desperately need.
“The government must demonstrate it is committed to ensuring the position does not deteriorate further while they work out how to address the crisis.”
As of 1 February 2021, there were 1,109 firms holding a criminal legal aid contract.
This is 752 fewer firms than the 1,861 in 2011 and 162 fewer than the 1,271 firms in February 2019, meaning about 75 firms have left the market each year for the past decade.*
The backlog in the criminal courts – which pre-dates the Covid-19 pandemic but have been exacerbated by it – have also hit defence solicitors hard with delays in progressing cases starving them of urgently needed funding.
“Hard-pressed defence solicitors play a crucial part in our criminal justice system, often working long, unsocial hours, and we greatly appreciate all their efforts,” added David Greene.
“They need more support now or they may not be there when justice is needed in the future, leaving victims in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial.”