Solicitors in London are turning down new instructions for defendants accused of assaults on emergency workers and harassment offences in an escalating dispute over legal aid fees.
Criminal defence lawyers in the capital are already refusing burglary cases because they say legal aid fees are too low.
Hesham Puri, head of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA), said: “The impact will be people being unrepresented and huge delays for victims and witnesses. Of course, we don’t want that, but the work is just so badly paid. The entire system is broken from years of underfunding and lawyers have had enough.
“If we don’t fight for the future of our ailing profession now, in five years’ time police stations and magistrates courts will no longer have proper access to justice. Victims, witnesses and defendants will then lose out.”
The action comes as barristers last week began walkouts over low legal aid fees which, they warn, are driving new recruits out of the profession. The disputes may increase the backlogs in the crown courts in England and Wales of about 58,000 cases.
An independent review by the former judge Sir Christopher Bellamy published in December last year recommended a 15% increase as soon as possible for barristers and solicitors. He said it would cost about £135m.
The Ministry of Justice says it is providing the extra funding recommended by Bellamy and the action by lawyers was threatening progress in clearing the court backlog. It says the increased investment in legal aid is the biggest rise in a decade. The Law Society has said the changes are welcome, but it wants a 15% increase for all legal aid fees.
Bellamy’s report identified the challenges in recruiting young lawyers to legal aid firms who typically earn about £18,000 a year during training and £25,000 on qualification. In contrast, one City law firm is reported to be offering junior lawyers starting salaries of £120,000 a year.
A Law Society response to the Bellamy review said that in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and Worcestershire there are no criminal law solicitors aged under 35 who are practising. In 2019, 62% of duty solicitors were aged 45 or over.
Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England, said the failure to invest in the legal aid budget had made it uneconomic for legal firms to work on many cases.
He said: “Young criminal solicitors are a dying breed because the profession does not pay enough. It will mean miscarriages of justice as a result.”
The LCCSA says an independent board should review legal aid fees annually and there has been no rise in standard legal aid fees for magistrates courts since 1996. It claims they were reduced by nearly 9% in 2014.
The Ministry of Justice said it was fast-tracking legislation so criminal solicitors would receive a 15% increase for work in police stations and magistrates courts. Other reforms to solicitor pay are under consideration.