The Legal Aid Agency keeps market capacity, including the number of duty solicitors on each local duty scheme, under constant review, to ensure that there is adequate provision of legal aid throughout England and Wales. The LAA is satisfied that there continues to be sufficient duty solicitor coverage across all duty schemes in England and Wales, and it moves quickly where issues arise to secure additional provision and ensure continuity of legal aid services. Provision under the duty scheme is demand led, so there may be variations in numbers across each local rota, or other fluctuations in numbers. A procurement exercise for new criminal legal aid contracts commenced on 1 October and is currently under way. The LAA will publish lists of providers and duty solicitors under those contracts, once the contract has commenced.
I send my solidarity and support to the barristers in Liverpool, and to those striking nationally over unsustainable cuts to pay and conditions and the failing justice system. Merseyside and Vauxhall law centres in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency do an excellent job providing legal support to people losing their homes. What steps is the Minister taking to review the shortages of duty solicitors at housing possession court, and what are his plans to improve that, because it is not a consistent approach?
The hon. Lady says that she stands in solidarity with the striking barristers. I remind her that back in February, before the publication of our response to the independent review of criminal legal aid, she attended a debate on legal aid in the north-west. Every Labour MP who spoke supported a 15% increase in fees, including three Labour MPs who would subsequently go out with the RMT. They supported 15% then, as did those on the Opposition Front Bench. Do they still support 15% now? If they do, they should not be supporting the strike action when we have that offer on the table. By the way, that 15% increase includes duty solicitors. It will increase the police station scheme funding. That is why it is good news for the criminal legal aid solicitors the hon. Lady is talking about.
Last week I visited Boothroyd Solicitors, who provide legal aid services in my constituency. They told me that despite being very busy, the business costs of their work, mixed with cuts to criminal legal aid, mean that they and many other criminal duty solicitors are in financial difficulties. They are receiving promises from the Government, but no action. Boothroyd Solicitors warns that access to an availability of duty solicitors will be severely impacted in the years ahead, if it is not tackled now. Will the Government urgently address that?
We all want to see thriving duty rotas in our police stations, and it is incredibly important that we support funding for criminal legal aid for the police station scheme. That is why we are increasing those fees by 15%. Indeed, I confirm that in relation to police station fees, the actual increase overall is 18%, as that will include expected additional expenditure, including pre-charge engagement. In total it is an 18% increase for police station duty solicitors. In addition, we want to see a new generation coming through, so we will also be ensuring that those with Chartered Institute of Legal Executives qualifications can more easily participate in the duty solicitor scheme.
The Minister knows that the Justice Committee welcomed the Government’s acceptance of Sir Christopher Bellamy’s review, which relates to fees for both barristers and solicitors in criminal work. We all want barristers and solicitors to return to accepting instructions in all forms of case. The Minister will also remember that Sir Christopher’s review stated that the £135 million that is being paid, I grant in tranches, and subject to certain reforms, was
“the minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”.
The “minimum necessary” first step. Will the Minister reassure practitioners of both professions that he accepts it is a first step, and that the Government are willing, able and ready to engage with the professions on the second step? Reassuring that good faith would make it easier to resolve the current impasse.
I am grateful, as ever, to the Chair of the Justice Committee. He may have seen that on Friday I published an article in the Law Society Gazette where I said that now that we have confirmed we will be legislating to deliver 15% increases to most criminal legal aid fee schemes by the end of September, I am keen that we move on to the next phase of reform. I am keen to engage with all parties, including the Criminal Bar Association, on how we can deliver that next stage. Everybody, including the CBA and the Bar Council, wanted this to be done in stages so that we could get in the initial increases as fast as possible, and that is what we are committed to.