I hugely value the work of criminal defence lawyers, who play a vital role in upholding the rule of law, testing prosecution evidence and ensuring that the innocent walk free. To support the profession through the pandemic, we sought to improve the cash flow for it by making it easier to draw down payment for work already collected, halting the collection of debt by the Legal Aid Agency and relaxing LAA contract requirements to ensure that more staff can be furloughed.
According to Government figures, in 2010-11 there were 1,861 firms with criminal legal aid contracts, whereas now there are only 1,138, which represents a 39% decrease. In addition, there appear to be significant recruitment shortages in the profession. According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, in 2017 fewer than 3% of 11,000 trainee solicitors were working in criminal law. That raises real issues as to people’s ability to access justice. What plans does my hon. Friend have to address this decline?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We want criminal law and criminal defence to be an attractive, sustainable profession, which is why we put £23 million into the advocates’ graduated fee scheme last year, which can benefit solicitor advocates, and why we put, as the first wave of criminal legal aid, up to £51 million into the profession. It is a great and important job, and we want people to go into it.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Equity of access to justice is a central tenet of the rule of law. Does he agree that is it essential not only that everyone who needs it has access to legal aid, but that it is set at a level that does not disincentivise lawyers from taking on legal aid cases?
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Anyone in this Chamber could be accused of a crime they have not committed, and we need to ensure that there are lawyers who can take on the cases, challenge the prosecution and evidence, and ensure that justice is done. That is why we have the criminal legal aid review, and we want to ensure that that independently led review secures a sustainable profession into the future, so that justice can be done in the future.
I applaud the Minister for his ongoing efforts to ensure that we have a viable and sustainable criminal legal aid sector. Will he work with all stakeholders to ensure that fee income is increased, as he knows it is the single most important issue to every firm of criminal law solicitors in the country?
I particularly thank my hon. Friend, who has been such a powerful champion of criminal defence. He is absolutely right. It has to be a system that offers rates that are attractive to people coming into the profession. Crime lower work—that critical work at police stations and in the magistrates court—has to be properly remunerated. The vital work that he has done in the past and that his colleagues do needs to be recognised and rewarded.
Again, we have heard warm words from the Dispatch Box. I am sorry to have to spoil the Justice Secretary’s birthday, but the truth is this: the Government simply have not got to grips with the crisis in legal aid, and those on the front line of our criminal justice system know it. Nearly two years on from the announcement of a criminal legal aid review, the plan for accelerated items has only just been published. That sticking plaster might just have sufficed before covid, but for a justice system already on its knees, it is woefully insufficient, and victims, defendants and practitioners alike are paying the price. Will the Minister put a stop to the dither and delay, recognise the urgency of the situation, and commit to expediting the remaining stages or at the very least come up with a realistic timetable?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I like the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid he is completely wrong. This is the Government who have put money into the profession. Let me tell him one thing: under his Government, does he know how much money was paid for unused material for advocates? Not a penny piece. This is the Government who are putting money into the profession. That is the way it is going to stay.