Three-quarters of prison lawyers will quit unless fees increase

Prisons: Work becoming more complex

Three-quarters (74%) of prison lawyers say that, without an increase in fees, they will stop doing the work within three years, a survey has found.

All the lawyers who responded to the poll by the Association of Prison Lawyers (APL) said they “routinely” did additional work for clients that they considered essential but was not funded by legal aid.

The APL said the report was based on responses from 98 of its members – “a reasonable number given the very small number of firms that do this work”. According to Legal Aid Agency data from March 2023, there were 116 provider offices doing prison law, compared to 353 in 2013 and over 900 in 2008/9.

Due to “extensive cuts to the scope of what prison law legal aid covers in recent years”, the APL said, almost all prison law legal aid work concerned Parole Board reviews.

Only 2% of prison lawyers disagreed that the complexity of Parole Board work had “increased significantly” in recent years.

The APL said that to deal with a workload that had expanded by a third in the last five years, the Parole Board had increased its members by two-thirds. The number of firms doing prison law fell by 40% over the same period.

Much of the free additional work carried out by prison lawyers was “essential to the effective progress of the funded work or the welfare of their clients”.

One lawyer commented: “The trauma of being key workers in lockdown (distinguishable from others in that payment for the highly intensive work we did is inherently precarious) is only exacerbated by the degrading compulsion imposed on us to do free work.”

Some 63% of prison lawyers said they did more work than the fixed fee in three-quarters of cases and a further 30% in more than half of cases.

The APL commented: “The fixed fee system is not working as envisaged. As cases have become more complex, providers who do the work have increased their losses in each case to the point where it is no longer sustainable without a fee increase.”

Without any increase, 74% of prison lawyers said they did not think they would not be doing any prison law work in three years’ time.

The APL said prison law legal aid rates had shrunk in the last 20 years and were 8.75% lower than they had been in 2011.

A third of lawyers said it was “extremely difficult” for their firm to recruit and retain staff.

One lawyer commented: “It is really hard to retain new lawyers in this field – many young lawyers express an interest in this area but do not stay in it due to the lack of funding.”

The APL added: “There is virtually no hope of recruiting new blood into this sector with the current combination of emotionally distressing work and poor pay.”

The APL called in the report for the government to immediately implement the 15% uplift in fees recommended by Lord Bellamy in his review of criminal legal aid.

It also recommended that the government review “the viability of prison law legal aid with a view to considering what further investment in prison law and infrastructure is required in the longer term”.

Rikki Garg, chairman of the APL, commented: “This data demonstrates the precarious position this area of law is in. Over the last 10 years prison law providers have been decimated. This rate of attrition cannot go on.”

Lubna Shuja, president of the Law Society said the report demonstrated “the plight of the prison lawyer and the urgent need to stop the exodus from the profession”. She backed the APL’s call for an immediate fee increase of 15%.

Chris Minnoch, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group, added: “It is absurd that the government has conceded that additional funding is required to halt the decline of criminal legal aid practitioners but not applied the same logic to those delivering vital services to prisoners.

“Action is needed now to ensure prison law work is put on a sustainable footing. A failure by government to act will undermine the integrity of the parole process and end up actually increasing costs within the prison system.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We’re putting the criminal legal aid sector on a sustainable footing, but it is only right we focus on those initial parts of the system where we can help divert more people away from crime and deliver swifter justice for victims.

“We closely monitor the number of legal aid providers to make sure prisoners have access to legal advice when they need it.”

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