Legal aid rates in England & Wales should rise by 25%, according to a review instructed by a cross-party group of MPs and peers.
The Westminster Commission on Legal Aid, set up last year by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, described the present system as neither sufficient nor sustainable. Witnesses spoke of "a palpable crisis in relation to the health and vitality of the legal aid workforce", with an aging demographic, fewer junior lawyers coming through, declining numbers of positions and an inability to afford the cost of training. Younger lawyers were also leaving for better paid positions with the Crown Prosecution Service or local authorities.
The junior bar also faced problems, with barristers not starting to repay huge debt levels built up in qualifying until age 33 on average.
With legal aid "deserts" appearing across many areas of England, the commission said access to justice should be available to individuals throughout England & Wales, not just in the big cities. It further called for the return of publicly funded training grants, and a reversal of the exclusion of some types of civil work from legal aid, enacted in 2012.
The commission was chaired by Labour MP Karen Buck and included Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat members.
Its recommendation for a 25% fee increase was based on inflation since 2011, though it said that legal aid rates had not increased since 1996. It also called for the reversal of an 8.75% cut in criminal fees imposed in 2014, and for an independent fee review panel to carry out annual reviews.
Ms Buck commented: "We began this inquiry fearing that life during the pandemic has intensified the underlying stresses on the legal aid system and those who work in it.
"The wealth of evidence we heard confirmed this to be the case. Levels of need have soared whilst access to legal aid and to legal aid providers, in both civil and criminal law has declined."