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LCN Says

Criminal legal aid lawyers: are they dying out?

updated on 13 September 2021

Criminal law is the most widely known area of legal practice, with work ranging from motoring offence and shoplifting, up to more serious crimes such as fraud, sexual offences and murder.

Criminal defence duty solicitors offer a vital public service, assisting suspects at the police station and in court.

Every suspect is entitled to free and independent legal advice at the police station, no matter what time of the day and regardless of the suspect’s age, wealth or nationality. At court, public funding is subject to means testing and not everyone is entitled to free advice and assistance.

This means that most criminal defence firms focus largely on public funded cases.

So, what is happening?

It has been reported that criminal defence solicitors have received no fee increase since 1998. Combined with other cuts to the legal aid system, many lawyers no longer see a viable career in criminal work. This makes it difficult to attract and retain new members of the profession.

Are criminal solicitors a dying breed?

Some may express an interest to work within the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as the salary is higher than what can be offered by a criminal defence firm, and this is also having a huge impact on new entrants to criminal defence work.

A newly qualified solicitor in a firm outside of London may expect to earn around £20,000 to £40,000. Those based in London and bigger cities will often earn more.

The average age of a criminal duty solicitor across the whole of England and Wales in 2018 was 47, and in many regions, the average age was even higher, according to the Law Society, who published data from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) Duty Solicitor Scheme from 2017 to 2018. As solicitors retire, this could have a disastrous impact on access to legal representation. The Law Society has stated that in five to 10 years’ time, there could be no criminal lawyers in certain areas of the country.

BUT it’s not all doom and gloom

As a criminal defence lawyer, you are helping people at what could be the most difficult and complex time in their lives. It is not only satisfying but vital as advice is sometimes given that the client might not want to hear. The importance of a good listener, communicator and advocate is essential for someone looking to work in criminal law.

Working within criminal defence usually means that you will deal with a case from beginning to end, from the moment of arrest right up until the trial or sentence hearing. The experience gained is second to none.

Criminal law and, in particular, defence work, is one of the most attractive areas of law, as although it can be challenging, the work itself is interesting and hugely rewarding. No two days are the same.

I find it truly worrying, and heart-breaking, that the data shows that the criminal defence advice could be non-existent in some areas in the country in several years. The UK’s Criminal Justice system is highly regarded as the best in the world. Will we be able to continue saying this if some suspects who have been detained by the police or facing criminal proceedings cannot obtain legal advice and assistance?

Gemma Adams (she/her) is a criminal paralegal and police station advisor at Tuckers Solicitors. She has more than 10 years’ experience working in criminal law. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.