Lawyers could cause ‘mayhem’ to the criminal justice system in protest over the government’s legal aid reforms, the leader of the Wales and Chester circuit has warned after barristers in Wales voted unanimously to boycott the controversial quality assessment scheme.
Speaking to the Gazette today, Gregory Bull QC also predicted that the Welsh economy would suffer as a result of the proposed contracting changes, which he said would cause a drop in the £25m contributed each year by legal services.
The Wales and Chester circuit has become the second of the seven circuits to vote to boycott the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA), following the northern circuit.
Of 180 criminal barristers on the circuit, 177 voted not to sign up to QASA and to refuse to accept work from other circuits that vote to boycott the scheme.
Bull said: ‘The vote was completely unanimous – 100% of those who voted, voted not to sign up. The three people who did not vote had been working in London during the ballot and perhaps had not opened their email.’
He said: ‘We are not opposed to QASA because we are afraid of quality assessment, but because we are against the current scheme as it does not ensure proper quality control.’
On the wider criminal legal aid reforms, that include the introduction of price-competitive tendering (PCT), fee cuts of 17.5-30% and removing a client’s ability to choose their lawyer, Bull said ‘there has never been such anger’ from the profession.
He said the circuits and others representative groups are in discussions and have sought legal advice over what action could lawfully be taken.
‘You can’t have wildcat strikes or a downing of tools, but it might be possible for everyone to go on holiday on the same day. If solicitor higher court advocates supported this, it would cause mayhem in the criminal justice system,’ he said.
Bull added: ‘It will be a matter for each individual member on circuit whether they want to work.’
He warned that PCT will lead to the ‘death of high street firms in Wales’, suggesting that no Welsh law firm is sufficiently large to be able to bid for one of the 12 contracts that will be available in the country.
This, he said, would be mean that all criminal legal aid services would be provided by firms based in England, depriving the Welsh economy of part of the £25m a year it receives from legal services.
Bull said the impact would be felt particularly by clients in Welsh-speaking areas.
The cuts to criminal legal aid fees, he said, will threaten the economic survival of chambers, making it ‘unlikely that criminal chambers will remain viable’.
‘Barristers pay chambers a proportion of their income – if that income falls and the rank of QC is effectively abolished for crime, chambers will get less income and others will have to fund a shortfall of 20% of their budgets, which they cannot afford to do.’
In addition, Bull said that the quality of service provided to the public will be reduced by the government’s ‘determination to drive down costs’. But he doubted whether any actual savings would be made in the long term.
‘Big organisations will put in low bids to defeat local solicitors and then tell the Ministry of Justice that the contract is uneconomic and they can’t do it for the price they bid,’ he predicted.
In a stark warning to Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, he added: ‘It’s a fight to the death – unless the profession takes a stance now there will be no profession in the future.’