The Law Society has warned the government that it will advise solicitors to exit criminal defence practice unless they receive the same legal aid pay rise it has offered to barristers.
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association said a failure to do so may lead to solicitors striking in place of barristers.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric over legal aid, president I Stephanie Boyce said: “If solicitors do not get parity on the bare minimum 15% recommended by Lord Bellamy [in his independent review last year], the Ministry of Justice will have made it clear that there is no future in criminal defence practice and we will advise our members not to undertake this work.
“No responsible organisation could truthfully advise otherwise.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said it had agreed to invest a further £54m in the criminal Bar and solicitors.
The planned 15% fee increase for barristers would now apply to “the vast majority of cases currently in the Crown Court”, rather than just new cases, a key demand of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA). This will also apply to fee increases for solicitors, the MoJ said.
There will be £3m for case preparation like written work and special preparation, £4m for defence barristers involved in pre-recorded cross-examinations, and from the 2024/25 financial year a £5m uplift per year for fees in the youth court.
The MoJ said that the CBA and Bar Council have also “committed to working together with the government to reduce the courts backlog and increasing diversity among barristers”.
It went on: “Measures designed to reduce delays for victims, such as increasing early resolution of cases, reducing the number of ineffective trials and progressing cases between magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court, will be explored.”
An advisory board on criminal legal aid reform will hold its first meeting next month and the MoJ said “further uplifts for solicitors will be announced in the weeks ahead”.
Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Brandon Lewis said: “I greatly value the criminal Bar and solicitors and the work they do every day in our Crown and magistrates’ courts. They are crucial to reducing the backlog.
“My priority in these discussions has been to ensure that victims aren’t forced to wait longer to see justice done.
“These are generous proposals, and I would strongly urge all members of the Criminal Bar Association to consider carefully, end their strike and work with me to deliver better outcomes for victims of crime.”
The CBA said the offer “represents substantial positive movement from government” and that it would be put to a ballot.
However, it expressed irritation that Mr Lewis “has insisted on going ahead with a premature press release”, which was entitled “New Justice Secretary agrees deal to get criminal barristers back to work”.
Ms Boyce warned the MoJ that “you cannot fix the problems in the system unless you fund all parts of it effectively”.
She explained: “Reaching a compromise with criminal barristers but not providing parity for solicitors is short-sighted given it is solicitors who make up the greater part of the criminal defence sector.
“The independent review the government commissioned made clear solicitors are in an even worse financial situation than their counterparts.”
Rather than taking “short-term disruptive action” like the Bar, solicitors were “simply leaving the profession permanently, in ever greater numbers because the work is not financially viable”, she went on.
“And yet the government is currently proposing only a 9% rate increase for solicitors, 40% less than the 15% being offered to barristers, and far less than the bare minimum the Bellamy report concluded was needed for criminal defence solicitors’ firms to remain economically viable.
“Either the government thinks Lord Bellamy, who is now a minister, was wrong to insist on a 15% uplift for solicitors or they have simply decided to ignore him.”
Ms Boyce said an exodus of solicitors “would have a far greater impact than the barristers’ strike”.
In response, an MoJ spokeswoman pointed to the comments about solicitors in its statement and said that £19m of the £54m would go to solicitors.
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association tweeted: “Our members will no doubt note that it appears the lesson the govt would like us to learn as solicitors is that only direct, disruptive industrial action is rewarded. Where is our 15% ?”
Another tweet said the MoJ had to understand that if an increase of 15% was being applied to advocate fees, then it must also be applied to all litigator fees. “Otherwise the message is clear, strikes work and they will swap striking barristers for striking solicitors.”
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association cited the Law Society statement, adding: “Many of our colleagues have started taking this stand and many more will follow @TheLawSociety advice.”