All may not be gloomy in crime

All may not be gloomy in crime

Nick Ross, criminal practitioner and SAHCA committee member writes:

The announcement in late January of the reversal of the proposed two-tier Duty Solicitor contracting process combined with the suspension of the further cut to criminal legal aid fees of 8.75% is clearly of great importance. This month the MOJ  announced that one fifth of the courts and tribunals in England and Wales are to close.

Many firms have been despondent in the light of  decreasing workloads, increasing challenges and constant battles with our paymasters, The Legal Aid Agency. However, some are of the opinion that the recent significant developments might just represent  the turning-point so many firms have been waiting for.

Firstly, the MOJ conceded two tier, which in the simplest of terms means that the reduction from around 1500 firms to 500 or so will not now squeeze the profession and reduce access to justice and access to criminal work for so many practices. The Justice Secretary The Right HON. Michael Gove recognized in the climb-down that the MOJ had identified other ways of achieving economies and also that they faced real problems in defending the  litigation instigated by around 100 disappointed applicant firms. So many firms were granted a reprieve, at least for 12 months whilst a review of Duty Solicitor allocation is undertaken. But, not only was there that welcome news for so many firms, also the MOJ agreed to suspend the previously introduced 8.75% cut in Criminal Legal Aid fees as from 1st April, which in effect gives a rise after the cut was implemented more than 6 months ago. Strictly this reverts  to the status quo, but it seems most criminal solicitors were not expecting this piece of good news.

Secondly, the Court closure consultation announcement last week involved the closure of 86 courts nationally, the equivalent of 1/5 of the court estate, and the majority of these relating to the criminal jurisdiction – in fact around 60 Magistrates’ Court venues. The Law Society and other organisations have expressed concern, largely appertaining to reduced access to justice for court users and increased travel, often over greater distances. Centralisation seems to be the way forward for the MOJ, with huge savings being achieved by the closure of court-houses. However, it may be that for solicitors, especially as advocates practising in the surviving and potentially busier courts, there may be a paradoxical advantage for many. In many respects less courts means less cover and less advocates needed to be deployed. Take Greater Manchester as an example, currently there are 8 Magistrates’ Courts although only 1 sitting on Saturdays and Bank Holidays. The plan is for the closure of 3, leaving 5 in a metropolitan area, with high volume and a high crime rate. Often  firms are spread too thinly and extra cover is needed, for example by counsel. With less court venues to attend, despite the travel challenges, it may just be that solicitor advocates will have an improved chance of providing the advocacy cover in-house – less venues, not so thinly spread, less external advocates required.

Listing in combined and centralised courts may well throw up greater challenges as these busier courts and their lists often result in greater delays.  Listing varies court to court but practitioners may seek to engage with court user groups in an attempt to secure timed listing of cases e.g. Pre-sentence reports cases in an afternoon. The  availability of the advocate should be an important consideration which Better Case Management in the Crown Court is supposed to recognize.

So we hope as a body of accomplished advocates, the news recently is not only significant but also arguably positive as far as the  short to medium term is concerned . As for the long-term, time will tell. The Conference by the  Public Policy Exchange Symposium on the future of Legal Aid may well be of interest and give an insight to what lies ahead.