Justice system could fail if exodus of legal aid lawyers not halted, MPs warn

T

he “fairness” of the justice system is being put at risk as legal aid becomes “less attractive” due to poor pay for defence lawyers, MPs have warned.

The Commons Justice Committee is calling for drastic reform of the current legal aid system as its latest report said defence lawyers are being underpaid for cases, with solicitors not seeing a fee rise for 20 years.

Legal aid is when the state steps in to help meet the costs of legal advice and representation in court to ensure a fair trial for defendants who otherwise might not be able to afford support.

Committee chairman MP Sir Bob Neill said attempts by central government to reduce the legal aid bill had left parts of the justice system “hollowed out”, with his committee flagging concerns raised by experts within the sector that it is becoming unsustainable.

If the most vulnerable in society are being left to navigate the justice system on their own then fairness is lost and the system has failed

In the committee’s report published on Tuesday, The Future Of Legal Aid, MPs concluded: “Without significant reform there is a real chance that there will be a shortage of qualified criminal legal aid lawyers to fulfil the crucial role of defending suspects and defendants.

“This risks a shift in the balance between prosecution and defence that could compromise the fairness of the criminal justice system.”

They noted that “many” legal firms are “not able to recruit or retain lawyers”, with a significant number leaving to join the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – the publicly funded body that looks to secure convictions.

Following their inquiry, the committee concluded that there are “serious problems with the current fee schemes” for criminal legal aid and that the “rates do not reflect the work required”.

To counteract the one-way traffic of defence lawyers switching sides, the 80-page report recommends ministers “consider linking legal aid fees to the rates of pay of the Crown Prosecution Service”.

They added: “The reliance on fixed fees for so much criminal work does not reflect the complexity of the cases that legal aid lawyers undertake.”

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