One in 10 criminal defence firms has collapsed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Law Society, there were 124 fewer firms than in 2019, a drop of 10%, and significantly down on the 1,861 firms that existed in 2010.
The solicitors’ group says that the coronavirus crisis ‘could precipitate the collapse of criminal legal aid as we know it’. ‘As a result of the pandemic, work for criminal legal aid firms has fallen through the floor – leaving many hanging on for survival,’ said Simon Davis, Law Society president. ‘Without urgent intervention, there is danger that many more duty solicitor schemes will face imminent collapse.’
According to Davis, the profession is facing ‘a triple whammy’: cashflow problems, short to medium term permanent loss of income, and ‘the pre-existing crisis of sustainability’. ‘Unless the government addresses all three, there is a serious risk of widescale market collapse,’ he added.
The Law Society claims fees for defence lawyers have not been increased for 25 years compared to a recent 10% increase for Crown Prosecution Service lawyers worth up to £85m and a promise of annual reviews.
The Law Society reports ‘a growing number of areas of the country which do not have any defence solicitors’. ‘This puts the very notion of British justice in jeopardy – with victims left in limbo and the accused potentially deprived of a fair trial,’ said David. ‘We have repeatedly warned the existence of criminal defence practitioners is under threat – and with it, the ability of the accused to access legal representation.’
The group is calling the government to reverse the recent 8.75% cut to fees, address cashflow problems through adjustments to how the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) pays for work, and provide relief for law firms from business rates.
All jury trials were suspended as of March 23 and it is reckoned that every month another 1,000 cases are added to the pre-COVID backlog of some 37,000 cases. According to the Criminal Bar Association, the latest stats place the case backlog is 40,526 as of May 24.