Criminal Legal Aid : Review Recommendations Resulting in £135m Funding
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What is Criminal Legal Aid?
Criminal Legal Aid is a publicly funded institution that needs protection. It works in the interests of justice for all and ensures that everyone can have access to legal advice and representation in Court. If an individual qualifies for legal aid, their criminal defence costs will be covered, or at least subsidised.
Regardless of financial status, if someone has been arrested or is being interviewed under caution, they will be eligible for free legal advice at the police station. Though, when a case goes to magistrate’s court or crown court, aid will not be automatically provided.
In these instances, eligibility for legal aid will be assessed via the full means test, a procedure which was reviewed by the Legal Aid Means Test Review, a document published this month.
At the moment, if you earn less than £12,475 per year, you will be automatically eligible for criminal legal aid. If you earn between this figure and £22,325, your eligibility will depend on the full means test. When an individual earns over £22,325, they will not receive legal aid whilst the matter is in the Magistrate’s Court. However, they could complete an application form for aid if their case reaches the Crown Court. In cases where an applicant for legal aid has over £37,500 of household disposable income, they will be ineligible for aid. Though, if their case reaches a Crown Court trial, they could apply for possible income contribution.
Legal Aid Means Test Review
Subsequent to the review of the test, the government have pledged to increase the income and capital thresholds to allow for 3.5m more people to receive criminal legal aid at the Magistrates Court.
Individuals who are not subject to the means test are those who are either under 18 or receive certain benefits, such as Income Support (IS). If an individual falls under this category, they will be passported beyond the means test to automatically receive aid. They will have to provide their national insurance number to do so.
Due to its aforementioned importance in society, legal aid requires periodic consideration to ensure that it is still fulfilling its vital role. As concerns have risen over the past couple of years, that “legal aid services are on brink of collapse, assessment of the service was required.
An independent review of criminal legal aid was carried out in 2021 and was led by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC. The review looked into a number of issues, such as ensuring that criminal legal aid was adequately funded and providing “high quality legal advice and representation”.
Once the review was complete, it made specific recommendations to the government. Some of those being: “to place legal aid on as sound a financial footing as possible”, “to restructure providers’ remuneration to pay for work done” and “to address diversity issues relating to criminal legal aid”. Moreover, Sir Bellamy’s central recommendation was that criminal legal aid funding should be increased to “at least 15% above present levels”. This would compute to an extra “£135 million per annum”.
The Ministry of Justice have accepted these recommendations and have devised a response to the review, pledging to provide this extra funding.
Concerns within the Legal Profession Regarding Criminal Legal Aid
Some legal professionals are still concerned about the state of criminal legal aid. Jo Sidhu, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said that a large proportion of its members would not be accepting return work unless the government agreed to measures which would “safeguard the long-term sustainability of the criminal Bar”.
He went on to say that if this does not occur, “the alarming exodus of prosecutors and defenders from criminal work will continue, if not accelerate”.
As worries rise that less legal professionals will be inclined to complete legal aid work, the government confirmed in their response to the review that they would “remove barriers to CILEX professionals working within the criminal justice system”.
Furthermore, it was highlighted by Sir Bellamy that the fees for criminal legal aid have not risen “for 15 years or even 25 years” in some cases.
Following consideration of this, the government have now pledged to have a “reform of fee schemes”. This will allow legal aid providers to be paid a figure which reflects “the way our legal professionals work in the real world today – not when the schemes were first devised”.
Despite some doubters, many have welcomed this positive action, as the President of the Law Society has welcomed it as a “first step towards repairing our criminal justice system”.
If you require assistance with legal aid costs, please contact ARC Costs to receive advice on your matter.
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