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Criminal Barristers: Return to Work

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

We have boosted the system with additional investment and engagement with the Criminal Bar Association. I welcome its constructive engagement and that of the Bar Council, which led to the end of the strike. We have ensured there is an uplift on new cases and for the vast majority of existing cases, which will come into force by 31 October 2022, plus additional funding for case preparation work, further funding for defence barristers involved in pre-recorded cross-examinations, which are used to reduce the trauma of a trial for vulnerable victims and witnesses, by early 2023—coming back to the earlier question from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves)—a substantial uplift per year for fees in the youth court and the criminal legal aid advisory board. All those changes, alongside the longer-term proposed reforms, mean there is an increased expected criminal aid spend of £1.2 billion per year. I am glad the barristers are back to work; that is good for victims and we can get these cases moving.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his collegiate approach and the speed with which he has brought about this situation with the Criminal Bar Association. Can he further assure me that, as well as the 15% uplift for barristers, his Department will continue to invest more widely in criminal legal aid, to ensure that it is adequately funded for the future as well?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The reality is that all lawyers, barristers and solicitors want to be working for the benefit of their clients and to ensure that victims are able to see cases come to justice. Speedy justice is good justice, with positive and proper outcomes through the right processes. Following the publication of the criminal legal aid independent review, we will be investing a further £135 million in criminal legal aid per year, the biggest increase in many decades, and setting out further plans for all parts of the profession as part of our response to CLAIR at the end of November.

The Secretary of State mentions solicitors, so can he say why solicitors have received only a 9% increase in fees, prompting the Law Society to say that they may not undertake criminal defence work?

I am not sure many people would class 9% as “only”, but that also does not reflect some of the other investments that solicitors will benefit from, particularly the substantial investment in youth courts, for example. As I said, we will respond more widely to CLAIR for the whole profession at the end of November and work with the relevant societies and associations.

I warmly commend the intervention of the Secretary of State to end the dispute; it was decisive and constructive and it is hugely welcome. I echo the points made just now: it is important for the criminal justice system to work well that solicitors too are properly remunerated. That is the view I take and I know the Chair of the Justice Committee would have made those points if he was not unavoidably detained today.

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point, and from the Dispatch Box I congratulate the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who is otherwise engaged today on some very enjoyable and well-deserved matters. I hope he has a wonderful day. As I have said, we are going to be responding more fully to the CLAIR report, but my hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that the criminal justice system works best when all parts of it are functioning fluidly and effectively for the benefit of all their clients and for wider society, and I am determined to ensure that we deliver that.

On the issue of solicitors’ fees, the Secretary of State clearly does not agree with his Justice Minister in the other place, Lord Bellamy, who said that the situation for criminal legal aid solicitors is more parlous than for barristers. The 9% is below the rate of inflation and it follows a 25-year pay freeze. When is the Secretary of State going to look properly at the issue of solicitors’ fees?

In the classic phrase, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks I have made many times already in the last few minutes.

I hope the Justice Secretary will join me in congratulating Lubna Shuja, who becomes the first Asian and Muslim president of the Law Society.

Sir Christopher Bellamy’s review of criminal legal aid was clear that legal aid rates needed to rise to 15% to put the system on a sustainable footing. However, the Government’s proposals would raise legal aid rates only to 9% for solicitors, which is below inflation. The Law Society warned that the justice system is on the verge of collapse without funding all parts of it equally. Will the Lord Chancellor adjust his proposals to meet the recommendations of the Bellamy review?

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the new president of the Law Society. I look forward to working closely with her, as I do with other parts of the criminal justice system’s leadership through the Criminal Justice Board. We will respond to the full CLAIR report and we will be working with solicitors. There is a wider package for the entire criminal justice system; even within what we have announced as part of the Criminal Bar Association package, there are substantial chunks that benefit solicitors as well. The hon. Gentleman should have a look at the wider package.