Solicitors accused the criminal bar of selling out to a government policy of ‘divide and rule’ as the Gazette went to press, after the bar ditched plans to take direct action over cuts to legal aid.

As solicitor practitioner groups ballot their own members on action, the Criminal Bar Association announced in a statement on Thursday that it would not ‘call for barristers to forgo work’ in opposition to new contracts. The CBA, which represents 4,000 barristers, said it ‘understands the difficulty solicitors face’.

The government is introducing a second 8.75% fee cut from 1 July for solicitors representing defendants. The number of contracts for solicitors providing 24-hour cover at police stations will be reduced from 1,600 to 527. Advocacy fees, however, will not be reduced ‘at this stage’.

Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said young barristers were concerned about the consequences of dual contracting and the second cut, which amounted to a greater threat to the independent bar than solicitor-advocacy. ‘The CBA leadership appear to ignore these concerns, any democratic process and any call for unity,’ he added.

Bill Waddington (pictured), chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said CBA chair Tony Cross will have ‘some explaining to do to those of his members who voted for no returns’.

Some barristers have broken ranks over the CBA executive’s decision. Mansfield (Crime) Chambers called for members ‘to demand an extraordinary general meeting’ and vote for direct action.

The chambers said the CBA executive voted by 34 to 11 against action. It said the CBA committee’s decision ‘has been described by insiders as “naive” and “like trading the family cow for a handful of magic beans”’.

Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: ‘We have considerable sympathy with the position of practitioners facing the latest round of criminal legal aid cuts.

‘We also understand the significant anger that exists over the damaging effects of government policy on access to justice and on dedicated professionals and small businesses who have had no increases to legal aid fees since 1992 and who have faced and are facing significant reductions to funding.

‘However, it is the longstanding position of the Society that it cannot support, organise or lead collective action. The Society is not a trade union and it cannot call its members out on strike or encourage them to take collective action. It would be unlawful under the Competition Act for us to call for, organise or lead collective action.

‘Many practitioners will undoubtedly be facing difficult decisions as to what to do, both in the short term and in the longer term, in view of the government’s decisions. It must be for individual firms to make these decisions based on their own individual circumstances. In making them they must consider, very carefully, not only their legal obligations under their current legal aid contracts and under competition law, but also their professional obligations under the SRA Code of Conduct to clients and to the justice system.

‘These professional obligations include their duty to ensure that their existing clients are properly represented now and under any new contracting regime, to provide a proper standard of service to their clients and to run their businesses in accordance with sound financial management principles.’

Solicitors had until 9pm today to respond to the LCCSA and CLSA ballot inviting them to refuse work at the new ‘derisory’ rates, but the deadline has been extended.

The CBA declined to comment further.