I am today announcing the publication of Sir Christopher Bellamy’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid report.
Since his appointment as Chair of the Review at the end of last year, Sir Christopher has undertaken a ‘whole-system’ review of criminal legal aid fee schemes and the market of providers in England and Wales, considering its role as an enabler of many functions of the criminal justice system. Throughout his review, Sir Christopher has been supported by a dedicated Expert Advisory Panel including legal practitioners, academics and members of the judiciary. Evidence to the review has been wide-ranging, reflecting the experiences of the legal profession, victims, witnesses, and defendants. I would like to thank Sir Christopher for his dedication in undertaking this important review and members of the Expert Advisory Panel and other contributors for their comprehensive work.
I am extremely grateful to members of the Bar, the Solicitor Profession and Chartered Legal Executives for their continued professionalism, dedication, and adaptability in delivering vital public services, particularly against the challenges of the pandemic, including their commitment to reducing court backlogs.
Sir Christopher has set out his vision for the role of legal aid in an efficient and effective criminal justice system. I recognise the importance of remuneration in delivering long term sustainability of the market and I will consider his recommendations on this matter very carefully.
Beyond the important issue of funding, I welcome many of the principles underpinning his vision for the role of legal aid in an efficient and effective criminal justice system. I agree that data-sharing and transparency can enable us to make a better assessment of the efficiency, incentives, costs and effectiveness of criminal legal aid. My department is continuing to explore ways to improve the availability and accessibility of data across the criminal justice system. Alongside the review, the Government has supported greater transparency by launching criminal justice system scorecards, which bring together data on a range of performance measures.
I am committed to ensuring defendants and other users of criminal legal aid services have access to high quality advice from a diverse range of practitioners. I will carefully review Sir Christopher’s findings and consider where there are opportunities for Government and the legal professions to work together to improve diversity to achieve a more equal gender and ethnicity balance within the profession and to support young barristers after pupillage.
I also recognise the importance of ensuring suitably experienced advice is available as early in a case as possible, so that cases are resolved at the earliest opportunity, increasing efficiency and improving outcomes in the criminal justice system. Sir Christopher makes specific recommendations on pre-charge engagement, which I will consider carefully.
It is important that the provision of criminal legal aid services meets the needs of its users, which may differ between regions. We will carefully examine the findings in the review around the potential for improving local outcomes, and in particular the potential future role of local Criminal Justice Boards.
Beyond Sir Christopher’s review, the Government continues to support the defence profession and the wider criminal justice system. The Government has committed to invest £2.2bn between 2022/23 and 2024/25 to meet increased demand on the criminal justice system from the additional 20,000 police officers and to fund the system’s recovery from COVID-19. As part of the latest spending review, the Government has also committed over £200m across the spending review period to complete the £1.3bn Court Reform Programme by the end of 2023. The Court Reform Programme is an important step towards digitising court and tribunal services and enhancing the experience of their users.
In his review, Sir Christopher notes that listing decisions are for the judiciary. He also notes that how cases are listed is important to efficiency and to the experience of victims, witnesses and practitioners. We will consider Sir Christopher’s analysis to see where we can support further improvements.
My department will continue to work with legal professionals and the judiciary on the future of remote hearings. As with listing, whilst the format of hearings is a judicial function, there are issues to consider around consistency.
We will consider Sir Christopher’s findings fully, and consult before taking decisions regarding his specific recommendations. It is right that such a detailed report receives the thorough consideration that it deserves, while giving the legal profession an indicative timeline. Therefore, I intend to publish a full response no later than the end of March 2022 alongside a consultation on all policy proposals.
Sir Christopher’s report can be found on GOV.UK and I have placed copies in the libraries of both Houses.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords