Solicitors demand Dominic Raab U-turn over solicitor Legal Aid fees

Dominc Raab has been threatened with legal action over solicitor Legal Aid fees (PA Wire)
Dominc Raab has been threatened with legal action over solicitor Legal Aid fees (PA Wire)

Solicitors are plotting a High Court battle with Justice Secretary Dominic Raab unless he agrees to 15 per cent increase in Legal Aid fees.

The Law Society of England and Wales is at loggerheads with the government over pay rates for criminal defence solicitors, following an announcement last year of an overhaul of the funding structure.

An independent review had recommended a minimum of a 15 per cent increase in fees for Legal Aid work, amid fears that lawyers were deserting the criminal sector in droves.

But the Law Society says that while barristers who went on strike secured a 15 per cent increase, solicitors have only been offered a nine per cent rise.

The professional body has now written to Mr Raab, urging him to rethink or face a Judicial Review.

“We argue the Lord Chancellor’s decision not to remunerate solicitors by the bare minimum 15 per cent, which the independent review said was needed immediately over a year ago to prevent the collapse of the criminal defence sector, is unlawful, as is the decision not to take action to address the risk of local market failure”, said Law Society President Lubna Shuja.

“We are seeking a commitment by the government to withdraw both decisions and reconsider them within a mutually agreed timetable. If not, we will issue a judicial review seeking an order to quash them.

“We argue both decisions are irrational and inconsistent with the constitutional right of access to justice.”

The independent review was conducted by Lord Bellamy - now a Justice minister under Raab - and recommended a series of urgent reforms to stave off crises within the Legal Aid system.

It identified a dwindling number of lawyers in the sector, and urged the government to take immediate action.

Defence barristers went on strike last year amid a delay in the implementation of the review’s findings, with a resolution reached only during the brief period when Raab was out of ministerial office.

Making a statement on the threat of legal action, Ms Shuja said: “The huge court backlogs, the crumbling court infrastructure, the lack of judges and lawyers, duty schemes on the brink – all paint a clear picture of a criminal justice system in crisis. A system that is evidently collapsing due to inadequate levels of government investment.

“The government is choosing to ignore the economic advice and analysis which Lord Bellamy’s review team painstakingly produced, using data the government itself supplied. Instead, the government is implementing policies that run against the rationality of the review it commissioned and accepted.

“This irrational policy-making will have wide consequences for the small businesses operating in the criminal defence sector, the criminal justice system as a whole and thousands of victims and defendants seeking justice.”

The Law Society says the government has not provided reasons for not following Lord Bellamy’s review recommendation to increase solicitor fees by 15 per cent, and argues this is an “irrational” decision.

In an announcement last November, the government calculated a total fee increase of around 11 percent for solicitor’s criminal legal work.

It says solicitor work at police stations will be subject to a 30 per cent fee increase, and there will be a 20 per cent boost in pay for magistrates court work.

“We expect our reforms to criminal legal aid will increase investment in the solicitor profession by £85 million every year, including a fee increase of over 15% for solicitors’ work in police stations and magistrates courts”, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further ahead of our response to the Law Society’s letter.”

The Law Society has also offered to enter into judge-led mediation with the government over the issue in a bid to prevent a High Court battle.