The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is to ballot members on taking direct action in protest against legal aid cuts as lawyers around England and Wales began boycotting new instructions from this morning.
The ballot, just weeks after members voted for direct action, will ask members whether they want go back to a ‘no returns’ policy, and refuse new work with a representation order dated from 1 July.
The CBA said the ballot will give ‘the executive a suitable mandate for its next steps’, and is intended to see if the strength of feeling from the bar shown in meetings around the country is reflected across the whole membership.
On 21 May the CBA said that 96% of respondents in an ‘unprecedented’ turnout of 35% had urged direct action. Despite this, the association ruled against any measures after the government said it would not subject advocacy fees to the 8.75% cut for ligitation.
‘The issues at stake for the bar – and each of you as individuals – in this ballot are not straightforward,’ a statement from the CBA said today. It urges all practioners 'even those who may have formed preliminary judgments, to listen carefull to the arguments on both sides before making up your mind as to how to vote'.
The ballot will close at 4pm on 14 July. The CBA stressed that individual barristers will be free to take whatever action they choose.
The announcement comes as more centres across the country said they would join the protest against legal aid cuts. In an early sign of the protest beginning to bite, Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said that no lawyer had been found to act in a rape case in Cheshire. He added that the number of areas voting to take action was ‘overwhelmingly’ more than had been expected.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service said the Cheshire case had been a straightforward adjournment.
In latest developments:
Firms in Leicester, who had initially declined to support action, last night agreed to forgo legal aid work on the new terms.
Nottingham and the West Midlands were also among those who said that they would take direct action, starting today.
Practitioners in Cardiff reversed their decision to boycott new instructions at a South Wales meeting last night, after some firms, who had previously supported taking direct action, reviewed their positions.
Some firms elsewhere in South Wales were also unable to support action, leaving the remaining ones not sufficiently confident in local support.
The centres that the Gazette has confirmed are taking direct action are: London, Manchester, Leicester, Leeds, Nottingham, Devon, Kirklees, Derby, Kent, Halifax, Dewsbury Bradford, Bath, Bristol, East Yorkshire, Leeds, Newcastle, Northumberland, Gateshead, South Tyneside, North Tyneside, Sunderland, West Midlands, and Merseyside. In Reading, six out of nine firms attending a meeting agreed to take action.
Meanwhile in Teesside, despite strong support among individual practitioners, a meeting felt unable to act due to the position of two firms. Practitioners in Norwichwere unable to reach a unanimous decision on a boycott after the area's largest provider said it would take action only if endorsed by the Law Society. Law Society president Andrew Caplen reiterated yesterday that. while Chancery Lane has 'considerable sympathy' with the plight of solicitors affected, '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.'
The actual action being taken varies from place to place. In some centres practitioners are refusing to take any new legal aid work, including duty slots, while others will continue duty work to comply with contractual terms. In some areas the members of the bar have signalled they would support action.
The Gazette will be updating this list throughout the day. Email firstname.lastname@example.org