Criminal Lawyers – an endangered species?

September 26, 2017

When animal species face extinction special interest groups dedicated to saving them are set up, campaigns are launched, funds are raised and celebrities get involved but when a cornerstone of our democracy, the criminal lawyer, is at risk we hear little; yet we face an impending crisis which if it is left unaddressed will undermine our justice system and the rule of law in this country.

This is not simply a plea for more money from a special interest group; it is a serious issue already affecting our justice system. The number of criminal law specialists is declining; already shortages are resulting in recruitment gaps for the CPS in Southern England, such that in Kent the CPS has had to recruit a team in Newcastle to handle its work. This may work for its case preparation and reviewing roles, made possible through digital working but it causes real issues in trying to appear in court and present cases before the local magistrates.

An analysis of the demographics of defence criminal law practitioners has shown an ageing population with a dearth of new entrants.
The only real solution to this crisis is to get more lawyers to undertake criminal work or else we will risk miscarriages of justice and damage to the reputation of this country’s criminal justice system, not to mention to the judiciary whose ranks have traditionally been drawn significantly from criminal practitioners.

Undoubtedly remuneration is the biggest factor, legal aid provides much of the funding of criminal defence practices, the rates paid govern the salaries that can be offered to defence lawyers which undoubtedly impact on the salaries paid to Prosecution lawyers. Legal aid rates have been frozen for twenty five years with no less than three substantial cuts during this period as well, creating an ever widening gap between the rates paid for publicly funded and privately funded work such that countries seeking to improve their own publicly funded legal services express surprise at how low our rates are.

As with public sector workers the correlation between recruitment shortages and pay cannot be ignored. In addition to issues of remuneration criminal lawyers face a lack of career path progression and increasing demands for extended unsocial hours working.

Recent pilots have seen lawyers required to attend court in the evenings, on Saturdays and Sundays resulting in longer working hours putting greater demands upon lawyers and their families. It is small wonder so few wish to specialise in criminal law.
Recognised career paths need to be established in order to attract newly qualified lawyers into the system. A joint recruitment programme aimed at universities and Law Schools should be developed for aspiring trainees as well as a recruitment programme aimed at those who are just qualifying. Experience gained in prosecution and defending should be seen as invaluable to both sides and positively viewed as far as enhancing career progression.

Policy makers and lawyers must face up to this crisis, there can be no more cuts to criminal legal aid and efforts must be made to find money to gradually begin to increase rates further. Private practice and the CPS must work together to create a greater and more formal movement of lawyers between defence private practice and the CPS if the criminal lawyer is not to become extinct.

This article first appeared on The Times’ Brief Premium website, on 21st September 2017, and is accessible online here