A nationwide legal aid boycott is expected to continue in to next week when the lord chancellor will be briefed on ‘positive’ discussions between practitioner groups and the Ministry of Justice.
Representatives from the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and the Big Firms Group met ministry officials yesterday afternoon – the third meeting since the government introduced a second 8.75% fee cut on 1 July, which prompted thousands of solicitors and barristers to boycott legal aid work at the new rate.
The meeting was attended by CLSA chair Bill Waddington (pictured, right) and committee member Zoe Gascoyne (pictured left), and LCCSA vice-president Julian Hayes and former president Paul Harris (pictured, centre).
Tuckers practice director Adam Makepeace, Reeds Solicitors’ managing director Jan Matthews and Kaim Todner managing director Karen Todner represented the Big Firms Group. Criminal Bar Association vice-chair elect Francis FitzGibbon QC attended as an observer.
Speaking to the Gazette afterwards, Waddington described yesterday’s talks, which lasted 90 minutes, as ‘ongoing and constructive engagement’.
The CLSA and LCCSA said the groups presented four options for the ministry and Legal Aid Agency to consider ‘in terms of alternative savings’ to the second fee cut.
‘It is right to say that these proposals were very well received and that there was a recognition of a financial benefit long term and not just over a three-month period,’ the groups said.
‘The three organisations made it clear that if the lord chancellor was to suspend the cut on a long-term basis that they would continue with engagement to suggest other substantial savings not limited to the legal aid budget.’
The CLSA and LCCSA welcomed the ministry and LAA’s suggestion that, should current talks resolve in a ‘satisfactory outcome’, the government ‘would want to continue the engagement with the associations in respect of matters including the implementation of [recommendations put forward by Sir Brian Leveson earlier this year] and the provision of quality advocacy through the courts’.
Justice secretary Michael Gove is expected to be briefed on the four savings options ‘at the beginning of next week’. The practitioner groups were told ‘a further meeting will not be necessary’ in relation to suspension of the fee cut.
Though the CLSA and LCCSA’s statement suggested progress on the fee cut, the MoJ ‘made it clear at this stage of the process’ that the lord chancellor will continue to press ahead with plans to reduce the number of contracts for solicitors providing 24-hour cover at police stations from 1,600 to 527, they said.
The tender process closed on 5 May. The new contracts are scheduled to begin on 11 January next year. Firms will be notified of the tender outcome next month.
The MoJ received 1,099 bids from more than 500 organisations across 85 procurement areas. London will have 210 contracts in 32 procurement areas.
The LCCSA is currently surveying its members to see if firms are willing to withdraw their bids or refuse contract offers.
Waddington told the Gazette the LCCSA ‘should test the water’, but said the CLSA was having talks ‘at committee level’ on whether to conduct a similar survey.