Crown court hearings across the north were disrupted today as over 400 barristers stayed away from court in the first incident of militant action against the government’s planned reforms to criminal legal aid.
The all-day protest meeting followed a ballot of barristers on the northern circuit, who the Gazette was told, expressed ‘overwhelming’ support for the action.
In a show of unity around 100 Manchester solicitors attended the first part of the meeting today.
Her Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service admitted that of the 241 cases originally listed for today, 15 trials and 42 other matters were adjourned, the majority of which were given new dates within four weeks. A HMCTS spokeswoman said that no vulnerable victims or witnesses were involved in the adjourned hearings
The high-profile Preston Crown Court trial of Dale Cregan, who denies murdering two men killed in a pub shooting, went ahead as planned and with counsel in attendance.
Online court lists indicate that many trials have gone ahead, but other courts are listed as ‘not sitting’ or state that the judge is ‘reading in chambers’.
One Manchester solicitor contacted the Gazette to say that four prison vans had left Manchester (Crown Square) Crown Court in convoy at lunchtime, indicating that custody cases had not been dealt with.
Criminal solicitors and barristers have united in their opposition to the proposed reforms, which include price-competitive tendering, 17.5% fee cuts and the removal of clients’ freedom to choose their defence lawyer.
The leader of the northern circuit Rick Pratt QC said the proposed reforms are 'nothing short of a wholesale restructuring of the criminal courts' that will lead to a ‘bargain basement’ system of justice. He said the disruption caused to the courts was 'inevitable' as, even after being notified last week of the meeting, the courts made no arrangements to minimise the impact.
The Law Society, which said the ‘unworkable’ proposals would lead to a ‘collapse of the criminal defence system’, urged solicitors to work with the consultation for now.
‘The Society does not rule out more serious action later on but, at this stage, we believe that it is in the interests of our members and of the criminal justice system to engage with the proposals and provide evidence and reasoned alternatives to government,’ a statement said.
Richard Atkinson, chair of the Society’s criminal law committee, added: ‘Only if they [the Ministry of Justice] persist in implementing price-competitive tendering should there be any further action taken.’
Lawyers on both sides of the profession have expressed a desire to take action to voice their opposition. One Birmingham solicitor, Amanda Naughton, is planning a march on Downing Street.
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association has organised a meeting in London on 22 May. Chair Bill Waddington said: ‘PCT needs to be taken off the table completely. Tinkering with the proposals is not enough.’
He added: ‘We understand that savings have to be made, but that will not be done by the devastation of the criminal justice system.’
However, the Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association has suggested that protesting against the reforms is futile. A flyer for an association meeting planned for 29 April says: ‘Short of a strike by the judiciary, change will follow the consultation… Arguments against the proposals are likely to fail unless they meet the financial reality.’
In the run-up to today’s action, a letter to the circuits from chief Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal says the presiding judge for the circuit, Mr Justice Holroyde, has written to circuit leader Richard Pratt QC explaining that the meeting does not provide a ‘sufficiently good reason’ for court hearings not to proceed.
Afzal said: ‘It is also our view that a meeting of barristers does not provide good cause for the usual work of the prosecution to be disrupted.’
Afzal added: ‘Given the good relationship that has been built up between the CPS and the criminal bar, I would be very disappointed if prosecution work is targeted, or suffers as part of the bar’s wider concerns about quality assurance or the consultation paper issued by the MoJ.
‘This will have an adverse impact on victims and witnesses and the wider community.’
He said the CPS would regard decisions not to honour professional commitments as a ‘very serious step’ that could impact adversely on the effective partnership between the bar and the CPS.
A Bar Council spokeswoman said: ‘There is significant anger and disappointment at the criminal bar at the prospect of further cuts. We are picking through every detail of the consultation paper to understand the full consequences of what is being proposed, to provide the evidence to explain the true ramifications for the justice system.
‘That remains our core and most immediate focus,’ she said.
A spokeswoman for the judges on the circuit said: 'The position of the judiciary is straightforward. It is constitutionally independent. It will hear any applications to adjourn, taking into account the interests of both parties and the administration of justice, but will only remove a case from the list if an application is made on properly arguable grounds.
‘If no application is made or if it is refused, the court hearing will proceed on Monday as listed.'
She added: 'In recognition of the uncertainty, the court will take steps to minimise any adverse impact on witnesses who have already been warned to attend on Monday.'
Meanwhile, barristers on the south-east and Wales and Chester circuits have been balloted on boycotting the planned Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates. Barristers on the northern circuit have already voted overwhelmingly in favour of a boycott.
A Law Society spokeswoman said: ‘We understand and share the surprise and anger at the government’s proposals among those who work in and care about the criminal justice system. We have made it clear to government that what they propose is unworkable.’
But she said: ‘Until every opportunity to influence the outcome is exhausted, that will remain our focus - working with members to produce alternative proposals to present to government. We invite responses to the Law Society consultation, helping to shape our submission.’