The Law Society has reminded legal aid solicitors who specialise in criminal law that they can exercise discretion when it comes to accepting cases.
The Society, which regulates law firms in England and Wales, said such solicitors have no obligation to take work if it would threaten the viability of their firm.
While legal aid solicitors are critical in representing people accused of wrongdoing under the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA) duty rota scheme, the viability of law firms is under threat as the remuneration rates for criminal legal aid work have not been increased since 1998.
James Parry, chair of the Law Society criminal law committee, reminded solicitors that only duty work is obligatory, and all other work may be refused on the grounds that it is “uneconomical”.
“The reduction in funding for criminal legal aid work has created a situation where many solicitors are increasingly required to undertake work that is unremunerated or carried out at a loss,” he said.
This scenario presents a “serious tension” between continuing to undertake legally aided work or to conduct business in a financially sustainable manner, he added.
Firms must carefully consider each instruction, in particular as to whether to accept or refuse such instructions will be contrary to their professional obligations.
Mr Parry continued: “Many solicitors’ practices undertaking this vital work in communities around the country are struggling to survive. Persistent cuts to rates can create a situation for providers where work cannot be carried out to the requisite professional standards without undermining the financial stability of providers.
“We recognised that solicitors need help in identifying circumstances which may warrant a refusal to undertake legal aid work and in doing so to ensure compliance with the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Code of Conduct. This new practice note sets out the situation as it exists under the contract.”
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