The Law Society has warned that any benefits arising from the independent review into criminal legal aid could be ‘some way off’ after the Legal Aid Agency announced that its crime contracts will be extended for a further 12 months.
Crime contracts currently held by criminal legal aid providers will be extended automatically until 31 March 2022. Existing providers will also be offered a further extension until 30 September 2022.
The LAA said: ‘After carefully considering our approach for the 2022 crime contract against the backdrop of uncertainty and the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, we recognise that launching a tender in April – as we had originally planned – would add further pressure during an already challenging period.’
However, the Law Society is worried that any benefits from the independent review, which is due to report by the end of the year, are now ‘some way off’.
Society president David Greene said: ‘Hard-pressed practitioners are keen to see the review’s findings implemented as quickly as possible after its conclusion at the end of this year but today’s announcement will leave them concerned at how long a delay they may face before finally seeing the much needed changes which CLAR must bring about. There is a grave danger that when those changes come it will be too little too late.
‘The LAA announcement suggests that the extension will avoid adding “further pressure during an already challenging period” but I must put it bluntly – the urgent need in the sector is for more money. Otherwise, we’ll see more firms closing their doors.’
A data compendium published by the government last week shows that there were 1,200 criminal legal aid firms in 2019-20, a figure that has dropped by nearly 300 since 2014-15. However, figures provided by the Ministry of Justice this month show that the provider base is continuing to shrink, with 1,109 firms currently holding a criminal legal aid contract.
The Society has called for an interim across-the-board increase in legal aid fees to prevent the system from collapsing before the independent review reports to government.