The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) today raised the temperature in the standoff over direct action against legal aid cuts by urging solicitor firms tendering for new contracts to withdraw their bids.
On the sixth day of nationwide boycotts of legal aid work offered under a second 8.75% fee cut, CBA chair Tony Cross QC (pictured) said his executive had heard ‘talk’ of solicitor firms withdrawing bids for contracts due to come into effect next year.
‘Thus far that’s all it has been, talk,’ Cross stated in his weekly chairman's message to CBA members. 'Not one firm has withdrawn its tender. It may be that momentum builds such that a sufficient number of firms withdraw their tender bids. If they do, no one would be happier than me.'
Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said there was a ‘growing movement’ of firms considering withdrawing from the tender process, ‘something that I would welcome’.
‘I can understand a number of firms who would like to withdraw wanting to know if their bid would be usurped - not necessarily by other law firms but “Uber”-style organisations that have managed to submit bids invisibly.' His own firm, BSB Solicitors in London, ‘[does] not anticipate benefiting from the tendering process’, he told the Gazette.
The Legal Aid Agency received 1,099 bids from over 500 organisations for the new contracts, which will cut the number of contractors providing 24-hour cover at police stations from 1,600 to 527. Firms will be notified of the outcome of the tender process in September.
Last month the CBA was accused of selling out to a government policy of ‘divide and rule’ after the association announced it would not call for barristers ‘to forgo work’ in opposition to new contracts. The decision came after the government said advocacy fees would not be reduced 'at this stage'.
The CBA is balloting members on whether they want to go back to a ‘no returns’ policy and refuse new work with a representation order dated from 1 July, when the latest cut came into effect. The ballot will close at 4pm on 14 July.
In the meantime, Cross said the ball was in the solicitors' court. 'It remains my view that the two-tier scheme would die stillborn in the event that sufficient firms withdraw their bids,' he added.
Referring to chambers which had refused to accept work at the new rates, he said: ‘Now members of the bar who rely entirely on solicitors for their work are taking action to support solicitors who contemporaneously are eagerly awaiting the return of their applications for dual contracts which may mean the end of the junior bar and, what is more, those who have bid are happy to inform them of that fact.’
Cross asked if it was 'too much' to ask the 500 applicant organisations to withdraw their bids.
‘In that way, these firms would show solidarity with their weaker colleagues and with the bar,’ he said. ‘But more importantly this would not be a fight about pounds, shillings and pence, but a fight about principle and access to justice.’
Cross went on to stress that he will be voting 'no' to strike action by the bar, urging his members to 'get real' and place their faith in engagement with the Ministry of Justice. He said: 'The lord chancellor has demonstrated his commitment to the bar. Look at his deeds. There has been no cut in advocacy fees. What more do you expect? Blood?'
Franklin Sinclair, senior partner at Tuckers, a key member of the Big Firms Group which carries out around 25% of criminal legal aid work, today joined what he described as a 'picket line' at Manchester Magistrates’ Court.
He said on Twitter: ‘Mcr mags today, we stand united. MoJ, you can’t ignore this. [Public Defender Service] and the odd scab won’t make any difference.’