Is the government actually listening for once?
The government has put plans forward in parliament to add on an extra £23million for criminal defence advocacy fees. The Ministry of Justice has also announced that it will launch a wide-ranging review of criminal legal aid payments, too. The news has been welcomed by The Law Society, and by the legal profession in general, after the legal aid budget has been repeatedly slashed over the past few years.
Changes will include an additional £8million for criminal defence advocacy fees (part of the £23m package), which will come into effect in January. There'll be a 1% increase in all fees across the scheme, making it more viable for many law firms who had previously moved away from this kind of work to contemplate it once again.
Another important change could be a revision of legal aid payments throughout the life cycle' of a criminal case, ensuring that defendants can afford to keep the services of their legal team from start to finish. The overall review is going to be a consultation process with the legal profession - for once, the MoJ is actually asking the front-line legal experts what needs to be done, rather than assuming a course of action that benefits nobody.
A system that's not fit for purpose
There is widespread belief that the legal aid system as it stands at the moment is no longer fit for purpose, and a succession of cuts, amendments and changes to the rules has left it basically toothless and almost completely inaccessible for all but a few. The Law Society believes that legal aid fees need to undergo a radical overhaul, but there must also be a firm commitment by the government to increase the level of spending to avoid it being nothing more than a paper exercise.
This is not, however, the only interesting development on the subject of fees. The Justice Committee said earlier in the year that it was particularly concerned' about the fact that defence practitioners were reviewing unused material with little or no remuneration for their time and effort. The Attorney General's disclosure review published in November, also pointed out that the current fees structure for legal representatives attending police stations is not fit for purpose for the sheer volume of pre-charge work that has to be carried out. Again, it's been suggested that a review into this should take place so that those legal representatives get the remuneration they deserve.
What does this mean for clients?
It means that there is a greater number of options open to those who need legal representation in criminal cases, but who lack the funds to pay the going rate' for a solicitor or barrister. This is actually a very good decision by the government, who have been held accountable by the legal profession for removing so many legal safety nets for those on low incomes.
It also means that solicitors don't have to think twice about providing a service for poorer clients, especially those in dire circumstances and facing a criminal prosecution. It means that justice is once again available for the poorest members of society, and that the fiasco that was the stripping back of the Legal Aid system has finally been put into reverse, albeit slowly. If the government's inquiries are as wide-ranging and as comprehensive as they say they will be, the result going forward will be a more robust legal service for the most disadvantaged, as well as a legal profession that once again has faith in the Ministry of Justice's ability to respond proactively to criticism. That's a win/win for everyone.
Alan Hobden is Partner and Head of the Criminal Law Department and can be contacted on 01323 644222 or by email on firstname.lastname@example.org