Jeffrey Report and the Devastation of Criminal Legal Aid

When I started as a criminal lawyer in the late 1970s, a 5 solicitor firm might have 6 or 8 clients in their local court each day.  By the time I gave up legal aid in 2008 it might be 1 or 2 a week in each court spread across London.

The change was driven by the state sponsored duty solicitor scheme.  Its introduction in 1985 was of huge benefit in protecting vulnerable people in police detention, but it produced a catastrophic drop in efficiency.  It allocated duty rota slots to individual solicitors, thus requiring firms to chase market share by increasing their solicitor payroll.

Between 2003 and 2010 the Legal Services Commission wrestled endlessly with the question of reform.  The Carter Review was very clear on the way ahead – peer review, followed by best value tendering, to secure an appropriately sized sustainable defence service from firms of established quality.

As we know, the profession fought back, and the LSC lost its nerve.  The reforms were abandoned.  Under a Conservative government we now face the consequences .  Funding has faced a series of cuts reducing it far below the point where efficiency gains protect service levels.

This is a catastrophe for everyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system.  There has been massive deskilling in the conduct of routine criminal trials, as reflected in the recent report by Sir Bill Jeffery on advocacy standards.

But so far uninvestigated has been the loss of resource in case preparation.  As Jeffrey said in his report “Poor preparation is the enemy of good advocacy”.

Given the scale of the cuts we ought to be worrying about whether a criminal defence solicitor can properly investigate and prepare a case for trial on current funding levels.    The Government continues to cut rates without any idea of what its pitiful stream of funding can buy.  As an appeal lawyer, I can say that its increasingly looking like “not much”.  The resource applied is often near to non-existent.

This is an appalling state of affairs, in one of the world’s wealthiest countries in the 21st century.

We need urgently to follow the Jeffrey report with some properly funded research on whether criminal defendants’ cases are properly prepared for trial.