The Ministry of Justice has said that courts ‘sat as usual’ today, the first day of a national protest against legal aid fee cuts. However lawyers reported delays and defendants being left unrepresented at courts across England and Wales.
As the first day of direct action draws to a close, a spokesman for the MoJ described that the impact of today’s action as ‘negligible’. A statement timed at 5.23pm said: ‘Over 95% of cases at a police station requiring a solicitor have been picked up within an hour – little different to any other day.’
However the Gazette has received numerous accounts of problems at both police stations and magistrates' courts.
Zoe Gascoyne, chair of the Liverpool Law Society criminal practice committee, said: ‘We have been aware there have been a number of problems at a number of police stations across the country. The duty solicitor scheme has struggled to cope with the number of cases coming through without own solicitors being in place. This is indicative of how things would be under two-tier [legal aid contracts].’
‘Both the Defence Solicitor Call Centre and police themselves have spent a significant amount of time ringing around trying to obtain cover,’ she added.
Mike Gray, a partner at Gray and Co and a member of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA), said that a rape case in Chester was passed around 17 solicitors before the case was finally accepted.
He said that the court in Chester was extremely busy, with ‘irate clients’ in the court corridors. ‘Everything was moving particularly slowly,’ he said.
Meanwhile in West Kent, police at one stage had to ring round solicitors asking if they would act privately for a detainee. ‘This was a person who had no money with him, no way of meeting the cost and therefore one has to worry about the police action in suggesting the person would or could meet the cost of private representation,’ Dennis Clarke, a CLSA committee member, said.
Clarke suggested that the impact of the action on crown courts will start on Friday, as murder cases have to be listed within 48 hours of commital by magistrates. ‘It is therefore correct to say the impact is incremental,’ he said.
In Colchester, the youth court was not able to start its business until 11.30am, with young people left ‘waiting and bewildered outside’, according to Laura Austin, a partner at Levy & Co Solicitors.
And in Northumbria, David Forrester, a solicitor at Geoffrey Forrester & Co who was on duty today reported that two defendants had been sent to the Crown court without representation.