Criminal legal aid firms are facing problems with cash flow, loss of income and sustainability due to the COVID-19 pandemic
The Law Society of England and Wales is calling for the government to provide greater assistance to criminal legal aid firms.
“'We have made clear since the start of the pandemic that criminal legal aid firms are facing a triple whammy—immediate cash flow problems, short- to medium-term permanent loss of income and the pre-existing crisis of sustainability,” Law Society President Simon Davies said in a statement to the Law Society Gazette. “Unless the government addresses all three, there is a serious risk of widespread market collapse.”
In February, the Law Society had protested the Ministry of Justice’s proposed offer of £50m to the market, calling it “woefully inadequate” at the time. But the pandemic has made conditions considerably worse in comparison.
As a result of lockdowns, the rates of arrests and proceedings moving forward have slowed. The backlog of outstanding cases has skyrocketed, and crime firms have seen profits plummet by up to 80%.
“The delay in implementing the proposals has meant the need for interim relief has now become more urgent than ever. In particular, if firms are now going to have to go significantly further into debt in order to survive the current crisis, they need some assurance that they will have a means of repaying this debt when we emerge from it,” the society said.
With courts beginning to reopen and workloads increasing, criminal solicitors now face the issue of bringing back furloughed staff at a time when funds are low. In addition, they must still repay government loans; these expenses could cripple them in the near future.
“Some firms tell us that in fact they see themselves heading into difficulties much further down the line. Where a firm has just been paid for a large case undertaken prior to the pandemic they may have sufficient funds to see them through until 2021. However, it is at that stage that they will start to have problems,” the society said.
Even before COVID-19, the number of criminal legal aid firms has been dropping in recent years—from 1,861 in 2010 down to the current figure of 1,147. The Law Society sees more closures on the horizon.
Thus, the society has recommended that the government overturn the 8.75% cut to criminal legal aid fees implemented in 2014.
“The society again submits that there is no logical reason for 100% of the cracked trial fee to be paid to the advocate in a case, and not the litigator,” the Law Society said. “There should be a fee uplift for youth court work and dealing with vulnerable clients as solicitors require additional time for this work. Payments on account should be allowed for approved disbursements in appeals and review cases.”