Criminal legal aid no longer a sustainable career, warns CILEX

updated on 28 May 2021

The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) has warned the government that working as a criminal legal aid lawyer no longer represents a viable career path, due to a desperate resource crisis in the sector that “threatens the stability of the entire system” at the cost of justice to the consumer.

There has been a steady decline in CILEX members choosing a long-term career in criminal law over the years. There are now 50% fewer electing to study criminal law than in 2012 (213, compared to 423), while the number of entrants into areas such as conveyancing and civil litigation has been on the rise.

In addition to the drop in new practitioners, overall numbers of CILEX members practising criminal law has also seen a reduction – 18% fewer are working in criminal defence now than three years ago, with many leaving the profession altogether. CILEX has described this as “a testament to the unfavourable working conditions and remuneration rates” they face.

The notion that the sector has failed to deliver “fair pay for work done” at all stages of the criminal law process, particularly the earlier stages of representation and investigation is not new and the institute claims that it “remains urgent”. In October last year it was reported that criminal barristers often earn less than minimum wage after decades of underfunding. At the time the Bar Council said this was putting the sustainability of the legal profession “in jeopardy” and would have “a disproportionate impact on diversity” in the profession, urging the government to increase the justice budget. CILEX states that the situation has only been exacerbated as the pandemic continues.

It now recommends that improved working conditions are necessary to increase stability in the market and rebuild the pipeline of providers. This includes making duty lawyers salaried posts (rather than paying remuneration on a case-by-case basis) and a rethought funding system for legal aid firms. It also pointed out the danger of disparaging, politically-charged rhetoric around ‘lefty lawyers’ and ‘do-gooders’ which discredit certain parts of the profession and serve to undermine “the good will on which the system increasingly relies”. These recommendations are intended to limit the “gradual departure of talented professionals from the defence sector as they become more and more attracted to the higher wages and greater job security offered by institutions such as the Crown Prosecution Service”.

CILEX President Craig Tickner, a specialist criminal defence advocate, said: “It is hardly surprising that aspiring criminal lawyers are instead opting to go into other areas of law, that firms do not have the resources to train juniors, and that experienced criminal legal aid professionals are taking the difficult decision to leave.

“The need for reform to secure fair pay for work done at all stages of the criminal law process remains urgent. Criminal case backlogs are at an all-time high and failure to tackle the crisis with holistic, top-down reforms risks the collapse of our justice system.”