Lawyers are due to vote this weekend on escalating legal aid rate action as figures reveal the number of Crown court cases adjourned due to a shortage of lawyers nearly quintupled over the decade.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is voting more than 2,400 criminal lawyers in England and Wales on options for action, including refusing new defense instructions and possible walkouts. A vote for new measures is likely to add to the backlog of 58,271 Crown court cases.
Lawyers say the criminal justice system is in crisis after a 43% drop in real terms in the legal aid budget since 2004-2005. Ministers have unveiled a proposed package of reforms and pay rises after an independent review by former judge Sir Christopher Bellamy, but lawyers say there must be an immediate pay rise.
The CBA says many of its members are being forced out of the criminal bar after their earnings have dropped nearly 30% over the past two decades. It says criminal lawyers earn an average annual income after expenses of £12,200 in the first three years of practice.
Justice Department figures show that 567 court cases were adjourned on short notice last year because prosecution or defense attorneys failed to show up or were engaged in another case. This compares to 114 cases adjourned for the same reasons in 2011.
Officials say Covid-19 absences have worsened the numbers, but Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon told the House of Lords constitution committee last month that the justice system was struggling with a decline in the number of criminal lawyers.
He said: “More and more cases are not moving forward because either the prosecution or the defense have not been able to find a lawyer to handle the case.” He said one of the factors was “the severe attrition in pay rates due to legal aid.”
Criminal lawyers filed suit in April over legal aid rates, refusing to cover colleagues in cases that had caused a log dispute or exceeded. They are furious that the government’s proposals to increase their fees by 15% only apply to new cases from October 2022 and not to a backlog of cases that will take years to clear up.
Jo Sidhu QC, President of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “Our action is aimed at addressing the lack of criminal lawyers to help tackle the crisis in our courts. We simply need more criminal lawyers to deal with the unprecedented backlog crippling our courts and our justice system.
Voting is expected to open later Saturday and end next Sunday. Industrial action is likely to intensify later this month if there is support for further action.
The Law Society, the professional body for lawyers, has also said the Government’s proposals on legal aid reform are “woefully inadequate” and will not reverse the damage done to the criminal justice system or reverse court backlog.
Lubna Shuja, the company’s vice president, said immediate pay increases were needed to recruit and retain criminal lawyers. “There are already counties in this country that don’t have lawyers under 35. Lawyers are tired of ‘jam tomorrow’ promises that never materialize,” she said.
The Law Society says the global package for lawyers equates to 9% salary increases from the 15% recommendation. Its figures show that the number of criminal legal aid firms in England and Wales has risen from 1,861 in 2010 to 1,090 in 2021.
The Department of Justice said it was increasing investment in criminal legal aid by £135million a year, the biggest increase in a decade, as recommended by Bellamy’s review.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The backlog in the Crown Courts has been reduced thanks to our decisive action and the hard work of legal professionals, including criminal lawyers, who, thanks to our reforms, will earn nearly £7,000 extra a year.”