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Covid-19: Legal Aid Sector Support

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021

With regard to the legal aid sector during this crisis, we have expanded the scope of and relaxed the evidence requirements for hardship payments in Crown court cases, including reducing the threshold for work done; we have increased opportunities to claim payment on account in civil legal aid cases, as well as increasing the amounts; we have halted the pursuit of outstanding debts owed by providers of legal aid to the Legal Aid Agency; and we have suspended sanctions in relation to mixed deadlines. That is in addition to the range of measures that we have taken in order to support the sector through this crisis.

The latest Ministry of Justice figures show that there are 56,544 outstanding Crown court cases at the end of January. Given that defence lawyers are paid for litigation when a case finishes, can the Secretary of State confirm what steps have been taken to assist legal aid lawyers with their cash flow at this time?

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that, as I referred to in my initial reply, we have already relaxed the evidence requirements for hardship payments and, importantly, reduced the threshold for work done by criminal lawyers to £450 from the current £5,000. It is absolutely essential that we maintain throughput, and as we move on through this year with the road map out of lockdown, I am confident that the court system will be able to list even more proactively, making sure that there is plenty of work for dedicated criminal legal aid lawyers.

The independent criminal legal aid review is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to fix a vital element of our criminal justice system. There are more than 400 fewer criminal legal aid firms today than in 2015. That means that more than one in four has left the system. When these firms fold, legal aid family law departments often go with them, leaving domestic abuse victims without representation. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government cannot simply wait for the recommendations of CLAR before taking action and that we must make sure that the number of unrepresented domestic abuse victims does not increase yet further.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the need for representation for domestic abuse victims. He knows, of course, that in criminal scenarios the Crown Prosecution Service will act with regard to the prosecution of offences. He will also note that, in phase 1 of the CLAR process, up to £51 million a year has already been injected into criminal legal aid fees. That is the most significant increase in investment in legal aid for a quarter of a century. We are working on the existing body of evidence with the new chair of the criminal legal aid review, Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, who is already engaging with the professions. I am confident that his work will deal not only with the situation with regard to fees in court, but, as he says, the “sustainability” of those criminal legal aid firms that are the lifeblood of representation in that sector.