Sir Christopher Bellamy QC published his report on the Criminal Legal Aid Independent Review (CLAIR), dated 29 November 2021. This was a wide ranging review which considered the whole of the criminal legal aid system, from police station through to appeal.
Sir Christopher made 19 recommendations for the reform of the criminal legal aid system. These were a combination of practical recommendations regarding the fee schemes, recommendations regarding training and support; and encouraging better cooperation between the various agencies, including on a local level, to find solutions for issues which affect the justice system as a whole.
YLAL has long campaigned for significant investment and structural reform in our criminal justice system. For years, we have been raising our concerns about the impact which the systemic underfunding or our justice system has had upon junior lawyers in particular, with these being the most vulnerable to exploitation, both in terms of the stage of their career, and financial stability.
We have been concerned that the financial barriers to qualification have had a devastating impact upon social mobility and diversity.
We welcome an injection of cash into the criminal justice system, particularly that the Government will inject an additional £135 million of funding. Sir Christopher had recommended an increase in fees across the board by a minimum of 15%. This was necessary in order to tackle the inequality of arms between the defence and the prosecution.
However, we would highlight that this was stated by Sir Christopher to be the very minimum required. We suggest that, in the context of a criminal justice system, ‘minimum’ justice is not something to which any government should aspire.
We are concerned by the Government’s statement regarding perverse incentives, which appears to imply that practitioners would give advice to clients solely based upon the financial gain they would make from a Crown Court trial. The duty to act in a clients’ best interests is always at the forefront of defence practitioners’ minds, and to imply otherwise is inconsiderate, particularly when one considers that the sole reason that the justice system is still able to function is due to the goodwill of defence practitioners.
We welcome Sir Christopher’s recommendation that the MOJ consider training grants to support trainees in criminal defence firms, and are pleased to note that the Government have committed to funding the training and accreditation of solicitors and solicitor advocates and removing barriers for members of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX).
We hope the Government will also pledge to meet Sir Christopher’s recommendation to work with the bar to consider whether further support for junior barristers after pupillage is appropriate in order to increase diversity within the profession.
YLAL is pleased that the Government has taken the concerns raised by Sir Christopher seriously. However, more is needed to prevent the further deterioration of the criminal defence profession, who are suffering badly from decades of underfunding.
We call upon the Government to protect the junior members of our profession and to uphold the principles of social mobility and diversity.
We shall consider and respond to the full Government response and policy proposals in due course and respond to the consultation on the proposed reforms.
If you are a YLAL member and would like to contribute to our consultation response, please email us at email@example.com with the subject line CLAIR volunteer.