Legal aid funding increase welcome but “does not go far enough”

Legal aid fees will rise for the first time in 25 years in a bid to save the criminal defence profession, it has been revealed.

However, the Law Society for England and Wales say the reforms “do not go far enough”.

According to the Government, up to £51 million will be invested into the legal aid sector to “better reflect the vital work criminal advocates and solicitors do” and the “considerable time and effort” that goes into preparing cases for trial.

For example, the funding will provide for new payments for litigators and advocates for reviewing unused material, and for advocates with exceptionally high volumes of prosecution evidence, with payments made at an hourly rate.

Fees will also be increased for advocates preparing cases which “fall at the first hurdle at the Crown Court”, as well as for solicitors for the work they do ahead of sending cases to the Crown Court.

The changes come after experts argued that the previous fees did not adequately consider the now vast amounts of digital, as well as physical, evidence, considered by legal aid barristers and solicitors.

But the Law Society warns that the hikes will not save legal aid defence firms, which have been shutting their doors at an “alarming rate”.

The latest statistics suggest that now just 1,146 defence firms hold a criminal legal aid contract – 125 fewer than in 2019 and 715 less than in 2010.

Commenting on the changes, Law Society president Simon Davis said: “A profession which was already perilously underfunded before the pandemic – with defence firms sinking at an alarming rate – has been plunged into even choppier waters by COVID-19.

“Criminal legal aid lawyers 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.”

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