Warnings over the future of the criminal defence sector of the profession are not new. It is at least 15 years (a little before my time in post) since the Journal first flagged up the threat posed by the increasing age profile of defence solicitors, and the lack of new blood coming in.
Perhaps the political reaction then, if there was one at all, was, “It isn’t going to happen any time soon.” Now, in 2018, it surely is. As John Scott QC observes in our lead interview, many colleagues are still the ones he knew when starting out 30 years ago, now in their 60s or 70s. Worse, he and his peers feel unable even to advise those hoping to enter the profession to consider defence work. That from people who have dedicated their working lives to enabling justice to be seen to be done in the criminal courts.
Should that come as a surprise? Financially, defence lawyers have been squeezed for years and most can only operate by keeping overheads to an absolute minimum. The legal aid review passed the ticking parcel of what to do about rates back to the Government, which has yet to respond. Our employment survey, on p 16 of this issue, reveals that 90% have either had no increase in earnings, or in many cases taken a cut, in the past year, and even those of many years’ experience may be towards the foot of the earnings league. And as we also reported last month, they are the solicitors most at risk of violence, from clients or others, with many experiencing repeated incidents over the years.
Should policymakers need further evidence of where this may lead, they need look no further than England & Wales, where the Law Society predicts, with a “heatmap” in support, that due to the increasing age profile, in five to 10 years’ time many regions could have too few defence lawyers.
It should not need to be pointed out, though perhaps it does, that the decline in numbers, and career appeal, will not be easily or quickly reversed, given the time needed to qualify and gain experience. Surely it would also be more expensive to have public sector employees fill the gap?
In the past month or so we have had the announcement of a £3.6 million budget increase for the prosecution service to help it cope with its caseload, and a 6.5% pay rise for
the police. Neither of these are grudged, but is it not now screamingly obvious that something has to be done also for the third limb of the justice system, and fast?