The Ministry of Justice has offered practitioner groups further talks as nationwide boycotts of legal aid work following a second 8.75% fee cut entered a seventh day – but fees are off the table, the Gazette can reveal.
The MoJ told the Gazette today that a recent offer of further talks with justice secretary Michael Gove to discuss broader ideas to improve the justice system had so far not been taken up by the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association.
Gove first met with the practitioner groups on 28 May, after which the MoJ decided to proceed with a second fee cut for litigators.
CLSA chair Bill Waddington said the practitioner groups responded to the ministry on Monday, making it clear they did not just want to talk about broader ideas but about the fee cut.
However a spokesperson for the MoJ told the Gazette that the fee cut was ‘not something up for discussion at the moment because that decision has been made’.
The news emerged as a high-profile murder trial was delayed after the defendant was not able to get representation.
The LCCSA said today that a ‘very small’ number of firms were not observing the boycott of instructions under terms imposed from 1 July.
But the group said it was ‘unacceptable’ for firms to take advantage of unrepresented clients by ‘touting’ for work and warned that any regulatory breaches would be reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Meanwhile, a preliminary court appearance of a man accused of the 1984 murder of Melanie Road, 17, had to be adjourned for three weeks due to the impact of direct action. Christopher John Hampton, 63, has been charged with murder but has yet to enter a plea.
Bristol Crown Court, where the case was listed to appear, confirmed that the hearing has been pushed back to 28 July ‘so the defendant can get some representation’.
Robin Murray (pictured), vice-chair of the CLSA, said it was ‘deeply concerning’ that a serious murder charge had to be adjourned due to a lack of representation.
He told the Gazette: ‘It is not good for the defendant or persons affected by a tragic loss. It is certain that the defence lawyers will be distraught that government attacks on legal aid has driven the profession to recognise that the cuts have made legal aid work unsustainable and need to be reversed.’
This will be one of many such cases hitting the headlines, he said, adding that an end to this dispute is ‘within the lord chancellor’s grasp’.
Jonathan Black, president of LCCSA, said: ‘The fact that Hamilton is now remanded for a further three weeks in order to get representation is regrettable, but demonstrates that the court realise this action may be long term.’
He added: ‘The issue is access to justice and no lawyer can prepare a murder [case] at the new slashed rates, if they could, he would of course be represented. Even outside the scope of any action, I have witnessed an unrepresented defendant some months ago being remanded by Crown courts as he was not granted a lawyer.
‘The MoJ were made aware of this and said they would make enquiries. I have heard nothing.’