Solicitors taking direct action against criminal legal aid reforms received a major boost this morning as barristers voted to join them.
Members of the Criminal Bar Association have voted in favour of no new work and ‘no returns’ to support solicitors’ action by 982 votes to 795 - equating to 55% in favour and 45% against - though on a low turnout of about 45%.
The CBA’s executive will meet later today to determine next steps, amid strong indications that the impetus for action is coming from the north of England rather than London and the south.
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association immediately tweeted its satisfaction at the development, which will put intense pressure on justice secretary Michael Gove to return to the negotiating table: ’CLSA @CrimeSolicitors Reports coming in that the Bar have voted in favour if action to support solicitors!! What say you now @MoJGovUK #businessasusual.’
CBA members were asked whether they would be prepared to refuse to accept new work with a representation order dated after 1 July and to refuse returned work. It was made explicit that the purpose of the action would be to support solicitors in their ongoing action to reverse the 8.75% cut to LGFS fees imposed on that date.
The CBA executive has already circulated a protocol for ‘no returns’ in the light of the fact that some sets have already indicated a desire to adopt the ‘no returns’ policy.
In a statement, the bar association said: 'Given the seriousness of this action and in order to avoid professional conduct implications, there needs to be an opportunity to inform professional and lay clients, and to make representations to court managers and judges that cases be rescheduled to avert clashes that can be identified in advance. The CBA Executive will consider how best this might be achieved at its meeting [scheduled for 6.30pm] this evening.’
It is unclear whether CBA chair Tony Cross, who opposed action supporting solicitors, will now face pressure to step down.
CLSA committee member Zoe Gascoyne, a partner at Quinn Melville Solicitors in Liverpool, told the Gazette: 'We hope the profession will now be able to move forward united. Michael Gove is obviously very keen on the independent bar. We also want him to acknowledge the exceptional contribution that solicitors make to the criminal justice system.’
The CLSA and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association have written to Gove seven times requesting a meeting and will be writing to the justice secretary again today, she said. Gove has indicated his willingness to meet the practitioner groups but no date has yet been set.
In a joint statement, LCCSA and CLSA chairs Jon Black and Bill Waddington said: 'These days few people provide services as a legal aid solicitor or barrister unless they are passionate about access to justice and the rule of law. The purpose of our action is to ensure that we can provide a quality service to those entitled to publicly funded representation from the police station and magistrates courts through to the crown court and beyond .
'The solicitors who have participated in the action over the past fortnight have shown that they have been prepared to make huge sacrifices in order to demonstrate that the cuts are simply inequitable, unsustainable and wrong. The most recent legal aid spend figures prove this to be the case.
' We now welcome the criminal bar which has formally voted to take direct action against the cuts which they recognise have a direct effect on their ability to provide a quality service. We would hope that ultimately we can sit down together as a united force and ensure that the lord chancellor will listen to the solicitors and barristers, who have traditionally formed formidable teams at the heart of the criminal justice system.’