(CN) — Pressure is growing on the United Kingdom government to release a long-delayed review into the state of legal aid provision in England and Wales, as the industry struggles to deal with the impact of funding cuts and Covid-related backlogs in courts.
The Criminal Legal Aid Review (CLAR), intended to respond to the crisis in the sector, was originally commissioned back in 2018 and due for publication in summer 2020. However, publication has since been pushed back to an unspecified date in 2021 and barristers continue to await news.
Members of the U.K.'s Criminal Bar Association (CBA) are growing increasingly restless over the delays. In an email to members last month, the Chair of the CBA Jo Sidhu highlighted poor pay, unreasonable conditions and low morale in the industry, as well as impatience with the government’s slow response to the situation.
He drew attention to a mass exodus of barristers from the profession, adding that "hundreds more are teetering on the edge of decisions to leave criminal practice if the CLAR falls short of recommending the drastic action necessary to reverse the decline in real incomes by significant uplifts to fees."
Sidhu argued that industrial action may be necessary if the report's publication is delayed further, or its contents deemed unsatisfactory. The CBA had balloted to take such action in 2019, with an overwhelming 94% of members supporting the move, however it was decided that any action should be delayed pending publication of the CLAR.
Last month's government spending review further frustrated barristers, with Sidhu dismissing an extra 477 million pounds ($636 million) over three years as little more than "window dressing" which would be unable to tackle the root causes of the problems.
The situation is worsened by a huge backlog of court cases as a result of legal proceedings being suspended during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, potentially innocent defendants who are unable to afford their own representation have been left stuck in custody, facing a declining availability of publicly funded barristers.
A bipartisan report from The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid was released last month, which further highlighted the perilous state the industry finds itself in.
The report stated that "All of our witnesses described a palpable crisis in relation to the health and vitality of the legal aid workforce: perceptions of an ageing demographic, difficulty with succession planning, fewer juniors coming through, declining numbers of positions and an inability of firms to justify the costs associated with training the next generation given the current fee structure.”
The situation is a far cry from just over a decade ago. In 2009, the government spent over 2 billion pounds ($2.7 billion) on legal aid, making the U.K. the highest per capita spender on public defense in the world. A large proportion of the U.K. population - almost 30% — were eligible for legal aid coverage at this time.
However, the relatively high per capita public spending on legal aid made it a target of the U.K. government's austerity program in the early 2010s, ostensibly designed to restore public finances following the global financial crisis.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LAPSO) became law in 2012 amid some controversy. Among other measures, the legislation gave the government direct control over legal aid finances, and all but eliminated funding for legal aid in civil cases. Subsequent cuts to the budget of the Ministry of Justice were the largest of any single government department between 2010 and 2020.
The government argued that the cuts were necessary to "discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense" and "deliver better overall value for money for the taxpayer." Justice Secretary at the time, Ken Clarke, argued that the cuts were "common sense" and the legislation would only take money away "from legal aid lawyers."