Legal aid solicitors and barristers “will always be respected by this government”, and not accused of being “fat cats” or “on the gravy train”, the Lord Chancellor has promised.
In his first appearance before the House of Commons justice committee, Alex Chalk – who succeeded Dominic Raab in April – said there had been a “total reset” in the way the government spoke about legal aid lawyers, along with a £144m boost for criminal legal aid.
Answering a question from committee chair Sir Bob Neill on declining numbers of criminal legal aid barristers, the Lord Chancellor, who was one himself, said he wanted a situation where they were “not only respected and admired, but could make a good living”.
The justice secretary said that he would “like nothing more” than to be able to implement the 15% pay rise in legal aid rates for criminal solicitors that was recommended by the Bellamy review but not implemented, and he hoped the Law Society’s judicial review on the issue “would not proceed to litigation”.
On the decline in the number of duty solicitors, he said that extra funding for criminal legal aid would increase their payments by 30% for police station work and 20% in the magistrates’ courts.
In a session dominated by criminal law, mainly by questions about prisons and probation, he said the government was doing “everything we can” to support the courts in reducing the Crown Court backlog, which stood at over 62,000 in the last quarter.
He reconvened last week the Criminal Justice Board, which includes the home secretary and senior judges, and said there was “a real positivity” about operational matters.
“I want to get through the caseload as quickly as possible, so we can release pressure on prisons and people waiting to give evidence.”
The Lord Chancellor said that more than 1,000 judges were recruited in the last financial year for a smaller number of vacancies (990), and he expected more than 1,000 to be appointed in this financial year.
“The system is delivering more justice, and healing and progressing well, but it is not something that happens overnight.”
Mr Chalk said that one reason for the Crown Court backlog was that during the pandemic, the government decided “not to bin juries” and there was “a price to pay for principle”.
He said that when he was a barrister – from 2010 to around 2017 – there was an “atmosphere of contempt and hostility” towards legal aid, with lawyers described as “fat cats”. Since then there had been a “total reset”.
The government would be bringing an additional six million people back into scope for criminal and civil legal aid, meaning anyone on universal credit could be passported through without having a means test.
On civil justice, he said there had been a “massively positive” decrease in whiplash cases. He had “inherited” a decision to include low-value medical negligence cases in the fixed recoverable costs regime, though he was not saying if it was wrong.
Mr Chalk said he was “extremely mindful” of access to justice, which he described as his “single biggest priority” and “always had to be in the forefront of our thinking”.
At the end of the session, he gave enthusiastic backing to the family mediation voucher scheme and said he would welcome a “legislative vehicle” which would allow earlier involvement from CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.