The Council of the Law Society has expressed its “great concern” over the failure of successive governments to adequately invest in the criminal justice system.
In a statement issued yesterday (25 September), the Council says: “In advance of the publication of Budget 2024, we are urging Government to take action and to make provisions for adequate investment in the criminal legal-aid system.
“Continued inaction will directly contribute to the creation of an inequitable legal system made up of those who have ready access to legal representation, and those who do not – whether that is due to affordability, or geography.
Fundamental human right
The Council continues: “Access to justice, and consequently access to legal representation, is a fundamental human right and, therefore, every effort must be made to avoid a two-tier system.
“We must ensure that we have a sustainable criminal-defence profession to protect the constitutional rights of citizens to legal advice in criminal cases, including the right to legal representation where a person cannot afford to pay for it.”
The Law Society says that demand for solicitors providing services to the State’s criminal legal-aid system is increasing. Despite this, many practitioners are choosing to leave the profession to work in other areas of law or to work for the State, because the remuneration provided in this area is not commensurate with the demands of the role.
Fees for criminal legal aid work were cut several times during the financial emergency more than a decade ago. Despite the increasing complexity of criminal legal work during that period, the rates have remained unchanged and still have not been reviewed – the only part of the public sector not to have pay cuts reinstated, the Law Society states.
It adds that criminal legal-aid fees are almost 30% less in real terms than they were before the cuts were imposed. This is despite reforms and changes to work practices in the profession, including increased workload, both in quantity and seriousness of cases, and rising overheads.
The lack of investment by Government is creating an unviable criminal legal-aid system with clear consequences for access to justice. ‘Legal-aid deserts’ are already emerging in some parts of country where there may only be one solicitor available to take legal aid cases – or in some cases, none at all. “In this context, the case for restoration of criminal legal aid fees is irrefutable,” the Law Society’s Council says.
The Law Society says that it, and in particular its Criminal Law Committee as well as local bar associations around the country, have been campaigning for many years for the restoration of these fees “because we believe it is essential that we have a criminal justice system that is both effective and sufficiently funded to ensure access to justice wherever people need legal representation”.
The Law Society prepared a report in 2016 on the lack of viability of the system and submitted it to the Department of Justice.
A further submission was sent to the Department of Justice in 2018 outlining how the legal-aid scheme could be restructured. Since then, the Society says: “There have been meetings with various Ministers for Justice, with broad support expressed, but no action.”
“We believe a fair, effective, and efficient criminal legal-aid system is fundamental to the democratic administration of justice,” the Law Society’s Council says. “We are urging Government to use Budget 2024 to invest appropriately in the criminal legal-aid system in the public interest.”