An ageing criminal defence profession is heading towards ‘extinction’, according to the Law Centre. The new data from Chancery Lane shows a looming crisis stemming from the dwindling numbers of defence solicitors across the country (here).
A Law Society heatmap shows that across Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, West Wales and Mid Wales, over 60% of criminal law solicitors are aged over fifty years old. Additionally, in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and Worcestershire there are no criminal law solicitors aged under 35 years, with only one each in West Wales and Mid Wales, and only two in Devon.
This could leave many individuals unable to access their right to a solicitor and free advice. The mean average age of a criminal duty solicitor across the whole of England and Wales is now 47 years, and in many regions the average age is even higher. Across the whole profession and areas of law, only 27% of all solicitors are aged over fifty.
London and Leicester had the lowest percentage of criminal law solicitors over 50 at 38% and 30% respectively. Although, this is still above the national average for the whole profession.
The data shows that few young solicitors are choosing the specialism which is relatively poorly paid in relation to other areas. The Law Society is concerned these trends may have a ‘catastrophic effect’ on the criminal justice system, as criminal defence solicitors retire and leave a shortage of experienced practitioners.
Law Society president Joe Egan commented:
The justice system is facing a cliff edge scenario; criminal duty solicitors are part of an increasingly ageing profession, and government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering the field … If this trend continues, in five to ten years’ time there could be insufficient criminal defence solicitors in many regions, leaving people in need of legal advice unable to access their rights.
Any individual detained by the police has a right to a solicitor and advice free of charge at any time of day, and regardless of wealth, age or nationality. According to Chancery Lane, they provide a vital service but the new data raises concerns that it may not be available in the future.
The Law Society further claimed that several areas have few duty solicitors. Only two cover Berwick and Alnwick (Northumberland), Dolgellau (Gwynedd) and Southport (Merseyside), three serve Hinckley (Leicestershire), four High Peak (Derbyshire) and Swansea (West Glamorgan), five in Newark (Nottinghamshire) and six in Barnstaple (North Devon). The Guardian has also reported that from May 2014 to January 2018 the overall number of practising solicitors rose by 7.8%, but the proportion specialising in criminal work fell by 9.4%.
‘Twenty years without any increases in fees, and a series of drastic cuts have pushed the criminal justice system to the point where lawyers can no longer see a viable career doing this work,’ said Egan.
Currently the Law Society is judicially reviewing the Ministry of Justice over to changes to pay Crown court work. The cap on the number of claimable pages of prosecution evidence has been slashed from 10,000 to 6,000. Solicitor Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, speaking at an event last month said that he was paid £440 for a public order case in 1978 – today he would be paid £250.
The data comes as 91 out of 350 barristers chambers are currently planning strike action in protest at the continued under-funding of the criminal law sector. The suggestion that defendants could soon be left unrepresented highlights the crisis of confidence in the criminal courts as even the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, complained in a speech on Monday about under-investment.
A ‘vigil for justice’, organised by the Justice Alliance, was held outside the Ministry of Justice last night.
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- Defence profession ‘facing cliff edge’, says Law Society - 19th April 2018
- Early legal advice saves public money, says Law Society - 30th November 2017