Nov 23 2022

Legal aid versus a private solicitor

If you’ve been accused of a crime you might be wondering whether to find a legal aid solicitor (the NHS option) or go private (the er… private option). Is there a difference? Is it worth paying a private solicitor? 
First, is there a difference in qualifications between a private criminal defence solicitor and a legal aid one? The answer is the traditional lawyers answer: maybe… but probably not how you expect. Being a solicitor is highly regulated, but when you take legal aid cases you will actually have to undertake extra training to qualify as a duty solicitor, which proves that you are competent to provide advice in the police station and represent clients in the magistrates court. Thus, unexpectedly, a lot of legal aid solicitors will have more qualifications than their private law counterparts. Many will also commit to even more voluntary qualifications to allow them to represent clients in the Crown Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. How do I know that? Because I qualified as a legal aid solicitor – in fact I qualified as a barrister even before that – then switched to privately funded law about 12 years ago. Many private solicitors, especially those focusing on motoring law, have always worked privately so have never had to prove – post qualification – to an external examiner that they have the skills necessary to represent clients in the courtroom and they often don’t see the benefit of completing extra training to allow them to appear in the higher courts.
If the legal aid solicitors are often more qualified then you should chose them, right? Maybe not. I want to be clear at this point, I think that most of my colleagues who work in legal aid are excellent lawyers who do their best for their clients every day. But, they are hampered by the fees on offer. In most parts of the country, a typical criminal trial heard in the magistrates’ court will pay a fixed fee of £279.45. That’s it. £279.45 is everything they will be paid for your case, every hearing, every time they speak to you, the work of the barrister, every expense the solicitor incurs working on your case, and VAT must all come out of that £279.45. I have always thought that it takes between 12 and 18 hours to properly prepare and present a magistrates court trial, so that means a legal aid solicitor, who puts the same effort into your case that I would expect from my staff, will effectively be charging between £23.29 and £15.53 per hour, from which all the business running costs, such as staff wages, power, travel, and your barrister’s fees must be paid! How do you make money with such low rates? You do a lot of cases, as many cases as you can get and you run them as efficiently as possible, i.e. by doing as little work on each case possible while still complying with your professional duties.
Why should you care what the solicitor gets paid for your case? Well, because the pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap business model means that there is no way a legal aid solicitor can possibly devote as much time to your case as solicitor who is charging a proper fee for the work and, as a consequence, takes on fewer cases. This shouldn’t be a surprise, most people will have experienced hurried NHS appointments where the clinician wants to get through as many patients as possible to ensure everybody who needs their services can be seen. If you’ve been to a private medical appointment, you know that the doctor will usually be at the more senior end of the professional ladder and will spend as much time with you as it takes, because they have fewer patients to treat. Same thing.
Another difference is specialisms. The reason legal aid solicitors have to undertake that additional training I mentioned earlier is because when they act as duty solicitor they could be faced with any type of case with just a few moments notice – in my first years as a court duty I never had less than 10 clients every morning and they could be accused of anything from drink driving through to murder (although in fairness there weren’t many of the latter coming through on duty rotas). They are thus general practitioners rather than specialists. You will certainly find some legal aid solicitors who specialise in particular areas of law but they tend to be the better paying cases in the Crown Court, such as serious violence, sexual offences, and frauds. They tend not to be motoring offences or drink driving.
So, should you instruct a legal aid solicitor or pay a solicitor privately? That’s a question that only you can answer. But, as with the medical world, if you go private you should expect more of your solicitor’s time; expect them to be more focused on your case. Because you will be instructing a specialist, you will be getting a solicitor with a deeper knowledge of motoring law that they can put to work in your defence.
If you would like to discuss your motoring case with a specialist solicitor you can call me today on 020 8242 4440 and ask for Nick Diable, or send a message via our contact page.