Justice minister James Cartlidge has admitted to MPs that the government’s response to an independent review of criminal legal aid was “not exactly” what its author, Sir Christopher Bellamy, proposed.
Mr Cartlidge said most criminal legal aid fees would go up by 15%, but not the litigators’ graduated fee scheme (LGFS), because the government did not want to create “perverse incentives”.
Earlier, I Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, told the justice select committee that the society initially welcomed the government’s response to the review, which accepted Sir Christopher’s call for a £135m funding boost.
However, after looking at the impact assessment and speaking to Ministry of Justice officials, the society realised that the 15% rise which Sir Christopher had called for as a minimum for both sides of the profession only amounted to 9% for solicitors.
Questioned by committee chair Sir Bob Neill about this, Mr Cartlidge replied: “It’s not exactly what he proposed, but very close.”
Responding later to Labour MP and former justice minister Maria Eagle, Mr Cartlidge said he was “not aware” that he, or justice secretary Dominic Raab, had said they accepted all of the recommendations in full.
Instead, he had said the government “accepted almost all of the recommendations in full, but not where they create perverse incentives”.
Mr Cartlidge described the reforms as “an incredibly positive package for the Bar and criminal law solicitors” and said the 15% increases would be implemented “as soon as practicable”.
He added that the LGFS would be reformed and £10m was being held back for that, but he could not confirm whether the result would be a 15% fee increase.
Sir Bob noted that, while the government had promised to spend the extra £135m called for by the review, it was only spending around £115m on fee increases, while keeping £20m back for longer term reforms.
He warned that, because the 15% increase would be applied to new representation orders, barristers were unlikely to see the money until 2023 or 2024.
Ms Boyce and Mark Fenhalls QC, chair of the Bar Council, began the session by setting out their concerns about the response to the Bellamy review.
Ms Boyce said the number of criminal legal aid firms had halved since 2007, and law firms would “continue to disappear until eventually the whole sector disappears”.
Mr Fenhalls said: “If you don’t fix a system that isn’t working, it gets more expensive day by day.” He called for both a “timely injection of money” and “certainty over the pipeline for coming years”, which was “crucial”.
However, he faced increasingly frustrated questions from Laura Farris, Conservative MP and former barrister, as to why female barristers earned much less than their male colleagues at every level of call and minority barristers 10% less.
Describing the situation as “unlawful”, Ms Farris said £135m was a “very significant amount of funding” and “it could be propping up something that is badly wrong”.
She suggested that the government should “compel chambers to release data where they earn public money”.
Mr Fenhalls said the Bar Council could not force chambers to publish figures on pay but it was working with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure fair allocation of work.
He said the situation was “not unlawful” but “the data shows the issues are real” and part of the reason could be client choice. “A lot of defendants in sexual offences will try and get a woman to represent them.”