The Ministry of Justice was today accused of manipulating figures to disguise the impact that a national boycott of legal aid work - now in its tenth day - is having in police stations and courts.
It has strongly denied the claim.
Solicitors across the country are refusing to take on legal aid work under a second 8.75% fee cut introduced on 1 July. The MoJ insists the vast majority of cases requiring a solicitor at a police station ‘have been picked up within an hour’ since action began.
However, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) said courts and custody suites around the country are now in ‘meltdown’.
CLSA chair Bill Waddington accused the MoJ of telling a ‘bare-faced lie when it says the action is not working’.
Waddington said: ‘The government has to be fudging the figures, and we suspect that they are changing the reference numbers for people in custody at regular intervals to show cases are being allocated quicker than is the case.’
The Gazette has been told of one example where a case was reportedly closed after the Duty Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC) was unable to find a solicitor. It is believed the case was reopened with a new reference number - to show that the case was allocated quicker than it actually was, solicitors claim.
In another example, a comment made in DSCC records suggests six cases were treated in the same batch until a solicitor could be allocated. Each job, as it was accepted, was then given a separate log.
An MoJ spokesperson told the Gazette: ‘There is no evidence to support claims the courts and police stations are in “meltdown” beyond anecdote and assertion. All our intelligence shows that courts continue to sit as usual and that the vast majority of cases requiring a solicitor at the police station have been picked up within an hour.’
Meanwhile, solicitors will be taking part in a north-west rally on Tuesday at 3pm outside Manchester magistrates’ and Crown courts. A meeting to discuss continuing action will take place as a Criminal Bar Association ballot on whether members want to go back to a ‘no returns’ policy and refuse new work closes.
Patrick Harris, a partner at Manchester firm Clifford Johnston & Co, said many barristers in the north-west had de facto adopted a ‘no returns’ policy.
He predicted that Crown court judges would start to see a large number of unrepresented defendants in preliminary hearings and bail applications from next week.