Report on status of legal aid highlights crisis at the bar

A report into the state of legal aid reveals a system in crisis, bogged down by delays and inadequate advice.

The report, ordered by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) and the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), shows that during 2003 clients in almost 500 publicly-funded cases were poorly advised, while 160 cases suffered delays.

In a survey of 326 solicitors, Frontier Economics, which conducted the report on behalf of the LSC and the DCA, also concludes that over the past year there appeared to be an insufficient number of barristers to cope with the growing publicly-funded caseload.
Counsel also declined taking on cases due to being underpaid.
Solicitors were unable to find barristers willing to represent clients in no less than 1,150 criminal, family and civil legally-aided cases.

The report states that it was harder in 2003 to instruct the right counsel than in previous years. It added: “This deterioration could imply that there is unlikely to be a reduction in the number of occasions in which solicitors are unable to secure a barrister of appropriate expertise and experience.” This trend could only be reversed if far more barristers doing legal aid work entered the profession.

It also found in 170 criminal cases and 26 family cases that clients suffered “detriment”, or in other words were badly advised, because solicitors could not find barristers to act on their behalf. Sixty other civil cases also suffered detriment.

Delays in proceedings took place in 100 criminal cases, 30 family cases and 30 other civil cases.

The 326 solicitors who took part in the survey said senior-junior barristers were the hardest to instruct because they were over-
burdened with legal aid work. Some 47 of those solicitors said they found real difficulties finding barristers of “appropriate expertise and experience”.

Firms doing the most legal aid work are the happiest to take on more, despite average hourly rates of just £69 against £83 for private client work.