Law Society Has a ‘Duty’ to Tell Lawyers to Avoid Underpaid Work, Says President | Lawyers

The Bar’s new president says the association has a duty to say lawyers in England and Wales to refuse criminal work if they are not properly paid, as they demand a 15% increase in legal aid fees to give them parity with solicitors.

Lubna Shuja took on the role amid anger that criminal lawyers were offered a 9% raise, despite having gone 25 years without a pay rise and a minimum 15% raise was recommended by the independent criminal legal aid review.

It is also below the agreement reached with criminal lawyers to end their strikewhich will also require the provision of funds for case preparation, pre-recorded cross-examinations and youth court cases.

While some criminal lawyers think they should take a cue from the lawyers’ playbook and take industrial action, Shuja says their contractual obligations prevent them from doing so. However, she says that doesn’t stop them from taking action that will ultimately have an even bigger impact.

“If we can see that there is an area of ​​work that is simply unsustainable and unviable, we have a duty to tell our members,” she said. “That’s why we are here, the Bar, we are here to represent, promote, support more than 200,000 lawyers, and we must do it for each of them. So if we can see that a particular area is unsustainable, we need to tell our members and they will vote with their feet, as they do.

“That’s their answer, they just say, ‘I can’t afford to do this job anymore: it’s not viable, it’s not sustainable. I can’t live with that kind of rate. I’m leaving and I’m going to do something else. And that’s a real problem because the long-term consequences of that are that we’re not going to have a criminal justice system. »

To illustrate her point, she points out that the number of law firms in England and Wales with a contract for criminal legal aid has decreased from 1,652 in 2012 to 964 today.

As a result, there are areas such as Barnstaple in North Devon and Skegness in Lincolnshire which do not have duty solicitors to represent and advise those in police custody. Without duty counsel, the police cannot continue, which has a ripple effect on everyone criminal justice systemShuja said.

The average age of a criminal duty attorney is approaching 50, rising from 47 to 49 in the past three years because, she says, younger lawyers “have made it clear that they are not willing to undertake criminal legal aid work because it’s just not viable for them”.

Shuja said: “The recommendation [in the independent review] was that an absolute minimum increase of 15% was needed initially, so we need to put that in place.

Shuja, the first Muslim and the first person of Asian descent to be named president of the Bar in its nearly 200-year history, said one of her priorities in her term was public legal education, which she hopes will help people understand “the role lawyers play in society and why they are important,” as well as educate them about the rule of law.

Many believe that the cuts to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budget since 2010 – among the heaviest in Whitehall – and the resulting cuts to the legal aid budget, were possible because the public did not feel tied to it in the same way as, say, health or education. But Shuja wants to change that.

“It’s actually just as important as the NHS, it’s just about getting the public to understand and see why it’s relevant to them,” she said. “Without it, you would have chaos in the streets. If you don’t have a legal framework, if you don’t have an adequate justice system that works effectively, where does that leave us? »

A Department of Justice spokesperson said the department is pumping over £135m more a year into criminal legal aid, bringing the annual total to £1.2bn.

The Department of Justice said lawyers would also benefit from the investment in legal aid reforms.