Criminal solicitors demand 15% pay increase, threaten to refuse work

The new president of the Law Society has said the association has a duty to tell solicitors in England and Wales to refuse criminal work if they are not paid properly for it, as they demand a 15% increase in legal aid fees to give them parity with barristers.

Lubna Shuja has taken on the role amid anger that criminal solicitors have been offered a 9% rise, despite having gone 25 years without a pay increase and the independent review of criminal legal aid recommending a 15% minimum rise.

It also falls short of the deal agreed with criminal barristers to end their strike, which will also require more money for case preparation, prerecorded cross-examinations and cases in youth courts.

While some criminal solicitors believe they should take a leaf out of the barristers’ playbook and take industrial action, Shuja says their contractual obligations prevent them from doing so.

However, she says that does not preclude them taking steps that will have an even greater impact.

“If we can see that there is an area of work which is just not sustainable and not viable, we’ve got a duty to tell our members that,” she said.

“That’s what we’re here for, the Law Society, we are here to represent, promote, support over 200,000 solicitors, and we have to do that for all of them.

So, if we can see that a particular area is not sustainable we’ve got to tell our members that and they will vote with their feet, as they are doing.

“That’s their answer, they’re just saying: ‘I can’t afford to do this work any more: it’s not viable, it’s not sustainable.

I can’t live on these kinds of rates.

I’m leaving and I’m going to do something else.’ And that is a real issue because the long-term consequences of that is we’re not going to have a criminal justice system.”

To illustrate her point, she points out that the number of law firms in England and Wales with a criminal legal aid contract has fallen from 1,652 in 2012 to 964 today.

Consequently, there are areas such as Barnstaple, in north Devon, and Skegness, in Lincolnshire, that have no duty solicitors to provide representation and advice to people who have been detained by the police.

Without a duty solicitor, police cannot proceed, causing a knock-on effect throughout the criminal justice system, said Shuja.

The average age of a criminal duty solicitor is approaching 50 because, she says, junior lawyers are unwilling “to take on criminal legal aid work because it’s just not viable for them”.

Shuja said one of her priorities in office was public legal education, which she hopes will help people understand “the role that solicitors play in society and why they’re important”, as well as educate them about the rule of law.

Many believe the cuts to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budget since 2010 – among the heaviest in Whitehall – were possible because the public did not feel connected to it in the same way as, for instance, health or education.

But Shuja wants to change that.

“It is just as important as the NHS, it’s just getting the public to understand and see why it’s relevant to them,” she said.

“Without it you’d have chaos on the streets.

If you haven’t got a legal framework, if you haven’t got a proper court system that’s operating efficiently, where does that leave us?”

The MoJ said the department was injecting more than £135m more a year into criminal legal aid, bringing the annual total to £1.2bn.

It added that said solicitors stood benefit from the investment in legal aid reforms.

‘Solicitors are saying: “I can’t afford to do this work any more – it’s not viable, it’s not sustainable”’ Lubna Shuja Law Society.

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