Article published: Saturday, July 18th 2015
Solicitors are taking direct action to oppose further cuts to legal aid fees by boycotting all criminal law work in magistrates’ courts and police stations. They have been forced into it by the drop in earnings caused by the cuts and by concerns over the quality of legal representation available as a result.
The direct action started on 1st July to coincide with a 8.75 per cent drop in legal aid fees for magistrates’ court and police station work ordered by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). The recent cut under the government’s remuneration scheme known as Litigators’ Graduated Fees Scheme (LGFS) was preceded by another 8.75 per cent reduction in legal aid fees last summer. The resulting 17.5 per cent drop in earnings is compounded by the fact that legal aid fees have not seen an increase for the past 20 years.
Robert Moussalli, a solicitor with the Manchester firm Burton Copeland, and a dedicated supporter of the direct action, said: “We are carrying out our duty solicitor duties, and we are also finishing any cases which we started before 1st July.” He said that as defendants can only be seen once by the duty solicitor, it is on the second appearances in the coming weeks when the strike will start to hit home. “There will be people appearing from custody who are unrepresented”, he said.
Moussalli was particularly concerned by the manner in which the current round of cuts was carried out by the MoJ: “They said they would do a detailed review before they decided”, he said, “and then they gave us only 24 hours’ notice, which is obviously not enough time for a detailed response.”
Moussalli said that the pursuit of cut-price justice can only lead to a decrease in the quality of criminal defense lawyers and their work, resulting in a substandard defence for people dependent on legal aid being prosecuted in UK courts. But not only defence lawyers are paying the price: extra charges, such as the Criminal Courts Charge, have been introduced for defendants in court.
Moussalli explained the problems inherent in the Criminal Courts Charge: “A theft or drugs charge on a guilty plea costs £180 and if you lose a trial, it is £1000.” He added that with prosecution costs, there was always discretion to take into account your finances and decide not to award it. “With the Criminal Courts Charge, they have to award it, no matter how little money you have”, he said. “It is an absolute scandal! It is just to scare people of pleading not guilty.”
Barristers, who weren’t part of the dispute from the start, undertook a ‘no returns’ policy direct action against the MoJ last year when their advocacy fees were threatened with cuts. Initially, during the current dispute, the barristers’ executive body, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) informed solicitors they weren’t going to support them in their action. A large number of barristers contacted the CBA and complained, which led to an agreement to hold a vote on the matter on 14th July.
After a majority vote to support the strike on 15th July, the CBA said in a statement that “the CBA membership has voted in favour of no new work and ‘no returns’ to support solicitors’ action”. It continued: “The purpose of this action is to support solicitors in their ongoing action to reverse the 8.75 per cent cut to LGFS fees imposed on 1st July.”
The statement explained that ‘no returns’ meant a withdrawal of goodwill by criminal barristers. The practice of barristers travelling to courts all over the country at very short notice to cover hearings in colleagues’ cases where diary clashes arise will stop indefinitely. It said: “Many of these hearings are not remunerated but they are fundamental to the efficient running of Crown Courts.”
Simon Pook, a solicitor working for the Manchester law firm Lizar Solicitors, said that if a barrister is indisposed due to ill health, holidays or some other unforeseen commitment during a period of ‘no returns’, nobody else will cover the case. Pook added that the effect of the policy could already be felt only days after it was in place: during a case at Manchester Crown Court this week, a defendant in custody appeared in court for a preliminary hearing with his instructed barrister unavailable until the 1st September. The presiding judge said he had no choice but to adjourn the case until the 1st September, adding that the dispute was “already causing huge congestion within the system.”
Pook said that police are telling duty solicitors in Manchester, and other cities in the UK, that there are massive backlogs in police cells. The department that deals with placing duty solicitors are bringing in solicitors who aren’t taking part in the dispute and are willing to travel 75 miles and more to represent defendants.
The solicitors and barristers have told the MoJ that their direct actions are indefinite. Pook said: “It is with regret and a heavy heart that the legal professions are saying this, because it is the vulnerable in our society who are suffering and are being placed before the courts without representation.”
In Pook’s view, the MoJ is pursuing a policy that will revert the legal profession back to a “Dickensian time” when only the rich could afford justice. He said that the right to justice, with legal aid for all as an integral element, “is a pillar of society that we must defend”. He added that “otherwise we end up in a society in which the rich get justice and the poor fill the prisons. That isn’t something that we are prepared to allow, at least not without a fight.”
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