Solicitors have threatened the Government with legal action in a row over fees.
The Law Society of England and Wales said it has called on the Justice Secretary to rethink the rates criminal defence solicitors receive for legal aid work, or face a judicial review.
A pre-action legal letter sent to the Government is challenging its decision as “unlawful and irrational”, the body which represents solicitors said on Wednesday.
It comes after the Law Society last year accused Dominic Raab of imposing a “real terms” pay cut on solicitors, warning this could lead to “chaos” in the justice system, with lawyers quitting and firms forced to close down.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said in November that it was giving solicitors the “biggest boost to their pay in decades”, amounting to an overall 11% rise in legal aid fees at a cost of £85 million a year.
But the Society claimed Mr Raab had “completely rejected” the advice of the Government’s own independent review into the legal aid system, which recommended an immediate 15% rate rise.
In the wake of strikes by criminal barristers, the body warned that the Government’s decision could see solicitors also resorting to “disruptive tactics” and said it is considering a legal challenge to the plan.
Law Society president Lubna Shuja said: “We argue the Lord Chancellor’s decision not to remunerate solicitors by the bare minimum 15%, 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.
“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.”
Government officials have stressed that, even though the overall percentage rise is lower for solicitors, they will receive double the money provided to barristers who were given a 15% rise (£43 million). But the Law Society said this was because there are more solicitors.
In findings published in 2021, the now Lord Christopher Bellamy KC recommended increasing criminal legal aid funding – which pays for representation during police investigations and in court for suspects who cannot afford their own – by “at least 15%” for solicitors and barristers as soon as possible.
His report warned that the sum was the “minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”.
“I do not see that sum as ‘an opening bid’ but rather what is needed, as soon as practicable, to enable … the whole criminal justice system to function effectively, to respond to forecast increased demand, and to reduce the backlog.”
He added: “I by no means exclude that further sums may be necessary in the future to meet these public interest objectives. There is, in my view, no scope for further delay.”
An MoJ spokeswoman said: “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.
“It would be inappropriate to comment further ahead of our response to the Law Society’s letter.”