Criminal duty solicitors like those at VHS Fletchers offer a vital public service. Any individual detained by the police has a right to a solicitor and this advice will always be free of charge under our legal aid contract with the government. This remains the case at any time of day, and regardless of wealth, age or nationality.
The mean average age of a criminal duty solicitor across the whole of England and Wales is now 47, and in many regions the average age is even higher.
The Law Society data highlights that in 5 to 10 years’ time there could be insufficient criminal duty solicitors in many regions, leaving individuals in need of legal advice unable to access justice.
This could have a catastrophic effect on the criminal justice system, as members of the profession retire and leave a shortage of experienced practitioners. This will impact on both access to justice and on valuable police time.
One explanation for these shortages is because criminal defence solicitors have received no fee increase since 1998. Instead, fees have been reduced and removed. Inflation has led to a significant real terms reduction. Combined with other cuts to the system including court closures, many lawyers no longer see a viable career doing this work. It is difficult to attract and retain new members of the profession.
The Law Society campaign
The Law Society is therefore calling on the Government to conduct an economic review of the long-term viability of the criminal legal aid system and to guarantee that criminal legal aid fees will rise with inflation.
Predictably there has already been comment from the government that there will not be a return to past fee levels.