MPs have demanded major reforms to legal aid, warning the justice system is being put at risk by the low fees paid to defence lawyers.
A new report by the House of Commons Justice Committee calls on the government to rethink how it funds legal aid, cautioning rounds of cuts have “hollowed out” the justice system.
Legal aid is how the state ensures those who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer still receive a fair trial, by paying for defence counsel itself.
However, the fees paid to lawyers for taking on legal aid cases have not risen for 20 years, meaning increasing numbers of criminal lawyers no longer pick up such cases.
Many law firms are unable to hold onto qualified lawyers, who are switching to join the better-paying Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) instead, the committee’s report notes.
“Without significant reform there is a real chance that there will be a shortage of qualified criminal legal aid lawyers to fulfil the crucial role of defending suspects and defendants.
"This risks a shift in the balance between prosecution and defence that could compromise the fairness of the criminal justice system,” the MPs argue.
Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the committee, said years of cuts to reduce government funding for legal aid had “hollowed out key parts of the justice system”.
"Fixed fees are failing to cover the cost of complex cases, the number of people receiving legal aid is falling and legal aid firms are struggling to keep going.
"Careers specialising in legal aid are becoming less attractive and legal professionals are moving to the CPS or private practice instead,” he said. “This puts the fairness of the justice system at risk.”
One way to stem the tide of lawyers quitting legal aid work could be to tie legal aid fees to rates of pay for the CPS’s own lawyers, the report suggests.
The MPs also recommend the existing fixed-fee structure be replaced with a more flexible legal aid system which can pay more money to lawyers who have to work longer on more complex cases.
"The legal aid system is there to ensure that everyone has access to justice,” Sir Bob added.
"If the most vulnerable in society are being left to navigate the justice system on their own then fairness is lost and the system has failed."