Just over 24 hours before practitioner groups meet the justice secretary, solicitors and barristers rallied outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London on day 22 of direct action to protest against the government’s legal aid cuts.
Thousands of solicitors have been boycotting new legal aid work since 1 July, when a second 8.75% fee cut was introduced. The Criminal Bar Association has recommended that action by its members - no new work and ‘no returns’ - begin on Monday.
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, Big Firms Group and CBA will meet Michael Gove tomorrow.
LCCSA president Jonathan Black told the rally this morning: ‘None of us know the likely outcome of tomorrow’s talks. What we do know is if [Gove] wants to pursue a programme of dual contracts and the [fee] cuts, that we will continue beyond the three weeks of action and continue to be a thorn in his side.’
Black asked the crowd in the meantime to be ‘flexible’ and ‘patient’, but more importantly, he said, ‘please do not give up this fight’.
CBA executive member Jo Cecil, a criminal defence barrister at Garden Court Chambers in London, told the crowd the profession was at a point of ‘unprecedented unity’.
Having solicitors and barristers around the table to meet the justice secretary, she said, had ‘never been accomplished so far in this struggle’.
Cecil said it was ‘heartening’ to hear what Gove had to say ‘in some respects’, such as overturning rules restricting the number of books a prisoner can have.
But the ‘big elephant in the room’, Cecil said, was Gove’s failure to mention why the criminal justice system ‘is in the state it is currently in’, and she highlighted issues such as trials being adjourned ‘because DVD players do not work, CCTV cannot be played, and because transcripts for [victims] are not being prepared in time’.
However, the ‘real scandal’, she said, was courts being under-utilised.
The Ministry of Justice and HM Courts & Tribunals Service is consulting on the proposed closure of 57 magistrates’ courts, 19 county courts, two Crown courts, four tribunal hearings and nine combined courts. A further 31 courts will be integrated.
Cecil said: ‘If you go into any Crown court, you can guarantee [there are] several rooms which will not be open despite Crown court trials being listed [as far as] August 2016. Why are these courts under-utilised and not working properly?’
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice highlighted to the Gazette a speech Gove gave at the Prisoner Learning Alliance last week.
Gove said the courts 'should ensure victims do not have to wait long months before criminals face trial and the sentences passed down should be applied proportionally and reflect the moral sentiments of the public in a democracy'.