James Cartlidge MP is Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice.
Today we have announced the most ambitious reforms of criminal legal aid in decades. Coming alongside a significant boost in access to civil legal aid, this amounts to one of the most important days of legal reform announced by a Conservative government.
The timing is crucial as we emerge from the pandemic and start to make progress on tackling our Covid-induced courts’ backlogs.
The proposed reforms to criminal legal aid, that we will now consult on, arise in response to ‘CLAIR’ – the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review overseen by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC and published last December.
Most importantly, we are delivering the two headline recommendations of CLAIR – £135m additional funding for the criminal legal aid system; uplifts of 15 per cent to most criminal legal aid schemes, paid to barristers and solicitors on the front line. Those schemes include: police station; magistrates’ court and most elements of the Crown Court schemes (AGFS for barristers, and elements of the LGFS scheme for solicitors).
When added to the extra £200m we have committed each year to speed up the courts system, today’s announcement will bring total taxpayer funding for criminal defence to £1.2 billion a year, the largest amount for a decade.
But crucially, this significant investment will not only add a vital cash injection to lift fees for criminal practitioners, it will set us on a path to reform that I believe will ultimately deliver better outcomes in the wider criminal justice system.
For example, one change would boost pay for lawyers representing suspects in police stations by 15 percent to tackle the perverse incentive that currently discourages lawyers from this work, instead choosing to represent defendants in Crown Courts because it pays better. The proposals will improve the advice available in police stations and stop cases going to court unnecessarily, delivering speedier justice to victims.
I recently visited Brixton police station to speak with the custody team about the serious challenge of how we provide early legal advice to minors, caught up in potential criminality, and – all too often at present – not engaging with a system they don’t trust. The team explained how they are participating in our pilot scheme that requires children facing charge to actively opt out of advice rather than having to opt in to it.
Initial signs are very encouraging, and it underlines to me that better outcomes are possible; early advice, all other things being equal, should mean justice is better served for all affected.
The proposals will also give more people the opportunity to forge a career in criminal law, whatever their background, by funding the training and accreditation of solicitors and solicitor advocates, and removing barriers for members of the chartered institute of legal executives (CILEX).
Alongside £2.5m of funding for training places, I hope that this investment in the next generation – combined with boosting fees for the present practitioner cohort – shows how our reforms are a long-term commitment to a more sustainable criminal legal profession.
Finally, our reforms to criminal legal aid are delivered on the same day we expand access to legal aid more broadly, through major reform of the means test that determines eligibility.
Ultimately, this is about access to justice: our proposed changes will open up access to civil legal aid for around two million more people, meaning that victims of domestic abuse, children and families at inquests will find it easier to access financial support in court. Domestic abuse victims will also benefit from changes to the means test that will mean property will not count towards their wealth if that property is the subject matter of the dispute.
The financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants will also be removed, ending the so-called ‘Innocence Tax’ which has forced some innocent people to pay their own legal costs despite being acquitted.
Combined with our measures to bear down on the backlog – Nightingale courts; unlimited Crown Court sitting days; judicial recruitment – I believe today’s announcements will set us on a positive path of recovery, benefiting not just those who work in the justice system, but all those with an interest in its vitality and viability.