Research estimates around 70 trainees in firms providing criminal training

Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018

SLAB and the Law Society of Scotland are working together to establish an accurate picture of the number of trainees involved in criminal practice.

Initial analysis shows there are 185 trainees in 83 firms, both mixed practice and criminal-only, which earned fees from criminal legal assistance during the period from July 2017-July 18. A total of 384 firms earned fees from criminal legal assistance in 2017-18, suggesting that around one in five firms undertaking criminal legal assistance currently has one or more trainees. 

What the data doesn’t show is how many of those trainees at firms with mixed practices are directly involved in criminal work.

The Law Society estimated that of the 185 trainees there are currently 25-30 at firms that are only registered for criminal legal assistance, indicating that it is highly likely that they will be training largely if not exclusively in that area of work.

Recent media coverage used the criminal-only figure in isolation and as the basis for saying that new entrant levels make the criminal legal aid sector unsustainable. However, only 148 of the 384 firms undertaking criminal legal assistance work in 2017-18 did so exclusively.

The focus on these firms identifies the minimum number training in criminal work but excludes the majority of firms, which are mixed practices. While some of the 160 or so trainees in mixed practices will be focused only on civil or commercial work, it is likely that some will also be spending at least some of their traineeship undertaking criminal work.

Amount of fees as indicator of criminal element to traineeship

In an effort to narrow the range from the minimum of 25-30 in criminal only firms to the maximum of 185 across all firms undertaking at least some criminal work, we have undertaken additional analysis to estimate the number of traineeships in firms where criminal legal aid is carried out regularly, as opposed to those in firms which are registered to carry our criminal work but only do so occasionally.

We have used a threshold of £100,000 earnings from criminal legal aid fees to separate the two categories of registered firm. Overall, 164 of the 384 firms undertaking criminal legal assistance earned over £100,000 in criminal legal assistance fees in 2017-18. Although a minority of firms, they received over 80% of all criminal legal assistance fees in the year. This total includes all but one of the criminal only firms with a trainee.

Using the Law Society’s trainee data and our legal aid figures shows there are 86 trainees in 41 firms that earned over £100,000 in criminal legal aid fees in 2017-18.

We think it fair to assume that a large number of trainees in mixed practice firms with substantial criminal caseloads will receive training in all aspects of the business, including criminal work. However, among these firms some may have a number of branch offices which do not offer criminal legal aid.

By removing these we estimate at this stage that around 70 trainees are in firms likely to provide training in criminal law. 
We are also seeking information on traineeship numbers in justice sector organisations: many of those trained in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, for example, may at some stage of their career go into private criminal defence practice.

Trends in trainees numbers

The Law Society is preparing historic data over the last five practice years to help us to identify any trends in entrant numbers. This, and further joint work into trainee activity, will add to our understanding of criminal trainee levels and any implications for the criminal legal aid sector.

There are undoubtedly challenges for solicitors delivering criminal legal services. Scottish Government figures show a continued fall in criminal court proceedings to their lowest level since comparable records began in 1970, with consequent reductions in recent years in the number of criminal legal aid cases and expenditure.

Further information on our joint analysis with the Law Society will be published when available.

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