Solicitors and barristers have announced the date for a second day of action in protest against the government’s cuts to criminal legal aid, following a meeting with the justice secretary yesterday.
A note sent to members by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) following the hour-long meeting with Chris Grayling said there will a ‘nationally coordinated training day’ all day on 7 March. The association said the day will include training at the Law Society. The day is likely to cause severe disruption to the criminal courts.
The action, which had been threatened by the profession if Grayling failed to provide a ‘positive’ response and willingness to engage with the profession at yesterday’s meeting, follows the half day of protest action in January.
The LCCSA told its members: ‘Ten months after the initial consultation was published it is clear that the Ministry of Justice is not willing to engage constructively with solicitors nor are they willing to meet with a joint delegation of solicitors and barristers to hear the shared concerns of the profession.’
At yesterday’s meeting, which was hosted by the Law Society, representatives from local law societies, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, BAME groups, LCCSA and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group voiced concerns about the viability and sustainability of the criminal defence market if cuts of up to 30% were implemented. They stressed the lack of time being given for solicitors to undertake the reorganisation being demanded of them by the ministry.
Grayling told practitioners there will be cuts and a two -tier contracting system – with contracts available to all that meet the qualifying criteria for own client work and a second limited number of contracts for police station duty work.
He did not give a date for publication of the government’s response, merely saying it will be announced ‘pretty quickly’. Reports by Andrew Otterburn and KPMG on the sustainability of the market, said Grayling, will be published at the same time as the government’s response and not before.
The meeting followed a series of engagement sessions across England and Wales hosted by the Law Society to secure the widest possible participation of practitioners in ‘frank and constructive’ conversations to examine and highlight the most detrimental aspects of the government’s proposals.
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck said: ‘The Law Society is against the proposed cuts. This meeting provided an opportunity for our members to voice their concerns directly with the government.’
An MoJ spokesperson said: 'At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform. We do not underestimate the challenge this reform presents for lawyers, but there continues to be severe financial pressure, being felt by all, and we cannot avoid making difficult decisions to help resolve this. We are examining every area of the department's work to find savings — legal aid has not been singled out.
'We have not stopped talking to barristers and solicitors since we first started consulting on these reforms and have made many adjustments to our proposals as a result. We have not yet published our final plans and remain committed to sensible discussions with lawyers where that is possible. Those working within the criminal justice system will of course do everything they can to minimise the upset this disruption could cause victims and witnesses.'
Chair of the Criminal Bar Association Nigel Lithman QC said: 'The purpose of any action must be to show the government the depth of the resolve among the legal profession to speak as one voice. We must show them the value of what they are so willing to destroy.'
He stressed the willingness of the profession to engage with the ministry, but said the action is a 'wholly reasonable and proportionate' response to the ministry's actions. 'Were the ministry to agree to halt the cuts - at least pending the Jeffrey Review as we have proposed - and engage meaningfully in an effective dialogue with the CBA, such steps would become unnecessary,' said Lithman.