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Westminster update: Law Society warns MPs about “imploding” criminal legal aid system

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One thing you need to do

As Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt usher in their first autumn statement, read our president Lubna Shuja’s article setting out our key priorities for the new government.

What you need to know

1. Criminal legal aid: Law Society warns MPs about “imploding” system

Our head of justice, Richard Miller, gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee on the crisis facing criminal legal aid on Tuesday 15 November.

Miller clearly outlined that the system is “imploding before our eyes” and said that the government must implement the 15% increase in criminal legal aid rates for solicitors recommended as the bare minimum if it is to stop this.

Criminal duty solicitor schemes, which provide representation in the police station, are collapsing already and without intervention this will continue.

Daniel Bonich, of the Criminal Solicitors Lawyers Association, said that, over the last five years, 25% of duty solicitors have been lost.

While the wider solicitor profession is growing, the same growth is not seen among criminal defense solicitors.

Many firms are stopping out of hours work as they do not have the manpower to do it. This will lead to delays in the courts and in police stations.

He added that, as it can offer higher salaries, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is able to recruit and take staff from defense firms, worsening the recruitment crisis the profession is facing.

Kerry Morgan, of Morgan Brown and Company Solicitors, said that things were “dire” in Greater Manchester.

She had lost three senior members of staff to the CPS and was unable to recruit duty solicitors or police station representatives.

She highlighted a case where she received a £200 fee for her work, while a psychologist she instructed as an expert witness was paid £1,000.

Morgan added that she was having to refuse certain types of cases as they cost her firm money and would lead to bankruptcy if she took them on.

Watch Richard Miller outline the challenges facing criminal legal aid

2. Law Society gives evidence on draft Mental Health Bill

Kirsty Stuart, chair of our Mental Health and Disability Committee, gave oral evidence to the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health Bill on Tuesday 15 November.

She made recommendations on how the bill could be improved for patients detained under the Mental Health Act.

The draft bill proposes amending the criteria which allow for someone to be detained, so this may only happen if they pose a risk of ‘serious harm’ to themselves or others.

Kirsty Stuart told the committee:

  • we believe that the amended criteria should also apply to patients who are involved in criminal proceedings
  • there isn’t sufficient justification for taking an unequal approach

Kirsty also discussed the government’s proposals to increase the powers of mental health tribunals with the committee.

Our priority is to ensure the Mental Health Tribunal – which decides whether a patient can be discharged from hospital – has what it needs to take on the additional responsibilities the government is proposing.

However, we were keen to tell the committee that the proposed increase in the tribunal’s powers will add pressure on the legal system.

We recommend that when assessing resourcing for the tribunal, the government funds legal representatives and independent mental health advocates.

We will continue to monitor the progress of the draft Mental Health Bill and will work to ensure this vital legislation enables patients to have a greater say in their care and applies the law on an equal basis.

3. Chancellor delivers autumn statement

The chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, announced £55bn in tax rises and spending cuts on Thursday 17 November as part of the autumn statement.

Departmental budgets will remain at the levels set at last year’s spending review, but with inflation forecast to be over 7% next year, this will amount to a real terms cut in spending for the Ministry of Justice.

From 2024, spending will rise at 1% a year in real terms.

We said that justice spending is being curtailed in the face of high inflation and that the English and Welsh justice system faces failure if it is not properly funded.

With the economy worsening, the public will need lawyers and the support legal aid offers more than ever as they face life changing issues like homelessness.

The government must ensure our justice system gets the funding it needs.

Hunt also confirmed that the energy price guarantee will change from April, rising to £3,000. Support for businesses from then is to be confirmed by the end of this year.

The statement also contained a package of tax changes.

The stamp duty cut will now only remain in place until March 2025. Income tax thresholds will be frozen and the threshold for the 45% tax rate will be cut to £125,140.

A package of business rates support was also announced, providing £13.6bn over the next 5 years. This will:

  • freeze multipliers
  • increase relief for retail, hospitality and leisure to 75% and abolish downward caps

The chancellor also outlined the forecasts for the economy, with the OBR confirming that the UK is now in recession. GDP will fall by 1.4% and unemployment will rise to 4.9%.

Hunt said the measures he had announced would lessen the impact of the recession and protect the most vulnerable.

Read our response

4. Home secretary comes under fire

In this week’s Home Office questions on Monday 14 November, ministers came under fire regarding the inefficiency of the asylum processing system and channel crossings.

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, said that the government is rolling out an ‘asylum transformation program’ to bring the system back into balance and to modernize it.

She said that it is focused on streamlining and digitalising processes to speed up decision-making.

With regards to a new deal made with the French government to work together to tackle channel crossings, the home secretary said that she would not overplay the agreement, but that it is an important step forward and provides a good platform on which to deepen collaboration.

Stuart McDonald (SNP) said that Braverman was absolutely right to temper her expectations of the French agreement, given that “previous deals were signed in 2010, 2014, ’15, ’16, ’18, ’19, ’20 and, indeed, ’21”.

He said that only a deal that includes safe and legal routes can make a significant and lasting impact.

Coming up

We will be working closely with MPs and peers to influence a number of bills and inquiries:

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