As the Bar Council starts to prepare for Justice Week this year, we would like to encourage you to do the same. The week of events starts on Monday 20 June and promises to build on previous successful Justice Weeks by raising the profile of justice issues with the public and decision-makers alike.

We would like to encourage Circuits, specialist Bar associations, the Inns of Court, chambers, and legal networks to play a role in Justice Week by organising their own events and activities.

The intention is to highlight the importance of legal services and access to justice; build public understanding and support for the rule of law; increase understanding in the justice system; and galvanise support and engagement that can help us to improve justice for all.

In March, the government announced a series of reforms to legal aid eligibility that are intended to improve access to justice. The changes that are proposed will, it is hoped, help domestic abuse victims who are disputing house ownership and other assets; remove the financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants; and enable acquitted defendants to recover costs.

It is also proposed that under-18s, families at inquests where there has been a potential breach of human rights, and parents challenging doctors over withdrawal of their child’s life support will all become eligible for free legal representation.

The Bar Council has long argued that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 diminished our justice system. The government’s commitment to extend entitlement to legal aid and representation in these areas should, if delivered, improve access to justice for some of the most vulnerable in our society.

But the justice system will only function as it should if there are skilled professionals available to represent the interests of the parties. So, we need to be vigilant about the health and sustainability of various parts of the profession.

Over the last decade and more, I have watched the age profile of the Criminal Bar change. When I began in practice in the early 90s there were few junior barristers over 20 years’ call. Now in many chambers there are few under 20 years’ call. In places we are an ageing profession that is not replenishing itself. Data and experience show, for example, that younger barristers have discovered that the financial rewards in criminal work do not compare to other areas of work and that they migrate elsewhere. Addressing this problem is a critical issue for government to undertake if public confidence is to be maintained.

During 2020, barristers who earn a living doing jury trials lost six to nine months of income. The effect of the stress, misery and financial uncertainty on the self-employed who didn’t benefit from the government’s furlough schemes is underestimated. Loans and mortgage holidays were essential but created debts that still must be repaid. Now, in contrast, there may be plenty of work available in terms of unlimited sitting days, but there are not enough lawyers to do it, and no-one wants endless amounts of underpaid work.

In March the government responded to Sir Christopher Bellamy QC’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid and published a consultation that proposes a 15% (+VAT) increase on all Crown Court advocacy fees. This first step is welcome, so long as it is just that – a first step – in a process of rebuilding a system long under attack. But it will not solve anything in the medium or long term unless two further steps are taken.

First, the money promised by government must be delivered this year. If the government applies the new rates only to new representation orders granted in autumn, then the 15% will only start to arrive towards the end of 2023 spilling into 2024. This is too late. There is already a precedent set by statutory instruments that provides a mechanism to increase the AGFS rates by the end of this summer if there is the political appetite to do it.

Secondly, the government needs to build confidence with the professions by showing that they are serious about the sustainability of the criminal justice system in the long term. The Advisory Board proposed in the consultation should be covered by the most appropriate terms of reference and lead on taking the angst and dispute out of legal aid remuneration. If the Board established has no credibility with the professions, then it will hamper efforts to encourage lawyers to sign up to, or stay working in, criminal legal aid.

We continue to urge the government to adopt the measures we have proposed and continue to engage constructively. Justice Week provides us with a timely opportunity to explain and emphasise the importance of legal services, access to justice for all and the rule of law. We hope you will join in.