Law Society: Criminal legal aid must be restored in Budget 2024
In a statement published below in full, the Council of the Law Society of Ireland calls on government ministers to accept the “irrefutable” case for restoration of criminal legal aid fees in the 2024 budget.
The failure by successive governments to adequately invest in the criminal justice system is a cause of great concern for the Law Society of Ireland.
In advance of the publication of Budget 2024, we are urging government to take action and to make provisions for adequate investment in the criminal legal aid system. Continued inaction will directly contribute to the creation of an inequitable legal system made up of those who have ready access to legal representation, and those who do not — whether that is due to affordability, or geography.
Access to justice, and consequently access to legal representation, is a fundamental human right and, therefore, every effort must be made to avoid a two-tier system. We must ensure that we have a sustainable criminal defence profession to protect the constitutional rights of citizens to legal advice in criminal cases, including the right to legal representation where a person cannot afford to pay for it.
Demand for solicitors providing services to the State’s criminal legal aid system is increasing. However, many practitioners are choosing to leave the profession to work in other areas of law or to work for the State, because the remuneration provided in this area is not commensurate with the demands of the role.
Fees for criminal legal aid work were cut several times during the financial emergency more than a decade ago, and despite the increasing complexity of criminal legal work in that period, these rates have still not been reviewed — the only part of the public sector not to have pay cuts reinstated.
Criminal legal aid fees are almost 30 per cent less than they were before the cuts were imposed without taking account of significant inflation over that time. This is despite the following reforms and changes to work practices in the profession including increased workload, both in quantity and seriousness of cases, and rising overheads.
The lack of investment by government is creating an unviable criminal legal aid system with clear consequences for access to justice. ‘Legal aid deserts’ are already emerging in some parts of the country where there may only be one solicitor available to take legal aid cases, or in some cases none at all. In this context, the case for restoration of criminal legal aid fees is irrefutable.
The Law Society, and in particular the criminal law committee as well as local bar associations around the country, have been campaigning for many years for these fees to be restored because we believe it is essential that we have a criminal justice system that is both effective and sufficiently funded to ensure access to justice wherever people need legal representation. Over the intervening years, many in the Law Society, its committees and individual solicitors have been continuously working to highlight this issue, as outlined below.
A report on the lack of viability of the system was prepared in 2016 and submitted to the Department of Justice. A further submission was sent to the Department of Justice in 2018 outlining how the legal aid scheme could be restructured. Since then, there have been meetings with various ministers for justice with broad support expressed but no action.
We believe a fair, effective, and efficient criminal legal aid system is fundamental to the democratic administration of justice. We are urging government to use Budget 2024 to invest appropriately in the criminal legal aid system in the public interest.