Labour condemns Tory “dithering” over criminal legal aid review

Elliot Chappell
© Willy Barton/Shutterstock.com

David Lammy and Karl Turner have accused the government of “dithering” for the past two years over its review of criminal legal aid and demanded answers from the minister after warning that the review is “lacking in meaningful progress”.

In an intervention marking two years since the government announced that it would carry out the criminal legal aid review (CLAR), the Shadow Justice Secretary and shadow legal aid minister have today written to Robert Buckland.

The first details of CLAR were published last year and last month the minister promised that the second stage of the review would begin before the end of 2020. But Lammy and Turner have described this as a “tall order to deliver”.

Commenting on social media this afternoon, Lammy highlighted that the “badly-needed review” still has no chair and no panel appointed and, he added, “no end in sight”. He warned that the criminal justice system is “on the brink”.

In their letter to the Secretary of State for Justice, Lammy and Turner questioned him on the timetable for appointments to the body and stressed that “time is of the essence for the legal aid system and access to justice”.

They wrote: “What is the timetable and process for the appointment of the panel? What guarantees can be given that the panel will have experience of the criminal legal aid system and that they reflect the diversity of the country that system serves and the professions that work within it?

“Crucially, what discussions have there been with HM Treasury? Their support, as you will be well aware, is crucial to ensure that the CLAR’s recommendations are not toothless.

“When is the independent element of the review expected to conclude, and will that also be the conclusion of the overall criminal legal aid review? What assessment has been made of when CLAR’s recommendations will be published?

“The standard crime contract is set to expire on 31 March 2022; if CLAR has not been implemented providers will be forced into the impossible position of accepting an unsustainable contract or dropping out altogether, further threatening the sustainability of the criminal legal aid system.”

Lammy and Turner warned that 38% of criminal barristers may not renew their practising certificates next year and that the number of solicitor firms holding a criminal legal aid contract fell from 1,271 in February 2019 to 1,130 last month.

They added: “With such drastic drop-out rates, there is a very real risk that the questions the review intends to address will prove redundant.”

The pair also noted the “stark contrast” between the lack of progress made on CLAR and the Conservative government’s approach to reviewing judicial review and the Human Rights Act, both of which have seen chairs appointed.

The government earlier this year launched its inquiry into judicial review, through which the legality of government policies can be challenged in the courts, with former Conservative justice minister Lord Faulks selected as chair.

Justice Secretary Buckland unveiled on Monday a review of the Human Rights Act promised in the Tory 2019 manifesto. Lammy slammed the timing of the announcement, in the middle of the pandemic, as “bonkers”.

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