If Dominic Raab hoped to satisfy and appease criminal legal aid lawyers with his package of reform proposals, he failed.
Raab told MPs on Tuesday that strike action by the criminal bar would be ‘totally unwarranted’ now.
That is a moot point. First, withdrawing a longstanding gesture of goodwill doesn’t constitute a ‘strike’. Second, he knows the Criminal Bar Association doesn’t believe the recommended 15% remuneration increase is sufficient to retain enough criminal barristers to keep the wheels of justice turning. Its members were balloted on a 25% increase.
The criminal bar voted overwhelmingly for direct action, it emerged earlier this week in advance of the CLAR announcement. How keen practitioners will be on proceeding remains to be seen, but several barristers have already confirmed they still support adopting ‘no returns’ next month.
Moreover, practitioners won’t actually see £135m land in their pockets come October, when the reforms come into force.
Of course Sir Christopher Bellamy, who was tasked by government to review the fee schemes, said £135m was the minimum necessary to begin nursing the criminal legal aid sector back to health after years of neglect. He treated £135m as a starting point. Raab is treating it like the finishing line.
Still, the lord chancellor has at least disrupted the aged narrative of a legal aid sector fighting a government that doesn’t care enough about legal aid to sufficiently invest in it. It’s early days and practitioners need to get their heads round the details. There is an offer on the table and it’s still a sizeable one.
Raab is no fool. He is already stoking division. He told MPs on Tuesday that he hoped the CBA ‘will take the more constructive tone we have heard from other practitioner groups’. Divide and rule.
He may already have shown his hand when it comes to direct action. His proposals include expanding the Public Defender Service on a limited basis ‘where there is a risk of markets failing or being disrupted’.
The consultation closes on 7 June. The next few weeks could make or break the professions. And Raab knows it.