MPs told of court chaos because of duty solicitor crisis

A court hearing was adjourned because a lawyer involved in the case was the only duty solicitor in the area and had to attend the police station to see a suspect, the Law Society has told MPs.

Giving evidence on legal aid, Society president Lubna Shuja told the House of Commons justice select committee that so many criminal legal aid firms and solicitors have left the sector, some areas around the country are covered by only one duty solicitor.

‘We know of a court in Wales where there was one duty solicitor. That court had to pause a hearing because that solicitor had to go to the police station to see to someone in the police station. That’s wasting public money, it’s causing delays in the system, it means victims are not getting justice quickly, defendants are in limbo, it’s contributed to the backlog.’

Shuja told the committee that there were 5,131 criminal legal aid practitioners in 2018. Now, there are 4,063.

The independent criminal legal aid review recommended a minimum 15% uplift in fees for both solicitors and barristers, as soon as possible, to nurse the criminal legal aid sector back to health. In its final response to the Bellamy review, published a year later, the Ministry of Justice said solicitor firms would see a total fee increase of around 11%.

Lubna Shuja

The committee heard that £30m would fill the gap between the government’s offer and the review’s 15% recommendation.

Pointing out that Lord Bellamy made his recommendation in December 2021, Shuja said the cost of living crisis and rising inflation and the government’s fee uplift cancelled each other out.

A solicitor practitioner who also worked at a high street firm for 14 years, Shuja added that many criminal legal aid firms are small businesses and high street practices. ‘They have a business model which functions on the basis of projected income. Not only that, we have an SRA. A code of conduct in place which requires firms to manage their financial viability, requires them to look at risk assessment.

‘Lord Bellamy identified over a year ago that this was not a commercially viable proposition, which is why he recommended you need to put a minimum of 15% now. Without that we have to give firms a warning that this is not a sustainable area for you to carry on working in. Think very carefully about your business model. Some firms are doing the work, but they are cross-subsidising it with other areas of work. That’s not right. That’s not the way to deal with things.’

Shuja added that there would be no criminal legal aid practitioners left by the time the government finishes longer-term work to reform the Crown court fee scheme for litigators.


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