The Crown Prosecution Service and the government have been criticised for going on a ‘wild goose chase’ in response to disruptive action that a practitioner group says was never planned.
A letter believed to be sent by the CPS on 15 March outlines contingency plans after the agency was warned that solicitors might schedule a coordinated ‘training day’ for last Friday (24 March), making them unavailable for court appearances.
Friday marked the last day that solicitors could respond to controversial Ministry of Justice proposals to cap court appointees’ costs at legal aid rates. Under section 38 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, a court-appointed legal representative acts where a defendant is banned from personally cross-examining a particular witness.
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association said it had come to the association’s attention that the CPS and HM Courts & Tribunals Service had deployed contingency plans for the day.
Association chair Zoe Gascoyne said: ’A lot of people appear to have wasted their time as there has never been any suggestion of a “co-ordinated training day” by any representative bodies. The CLSA hopes that this wild goose chase has not cost the public purse as we have heard that the Public Defender Service had also dispatched lawyers to various locations.’
The letter appears to be prompted by a statement issued by the CLSA on its website on 3 March.
The association’s statement said: ’Following strong views expressed to the committee by members and the local profession in relation to unjustified cuts to legal aid, the CLSA acknowledge that solicitors will be unwilling to continue conducting cross-examination appointed by the court under s38 YJCE 1999 as from the 1st of April. The CLSA also acknowledges that in particular areas solicitors will return all s38 instructions with immediate effect.’
The CPS letter refers to the CLSA giving ‘notice’. The letter continues: ’In addition, MoJ have been advised that solicitors may schedule a co-ordinated “training day” on 24 March, making them unavailable for court appearances.’
Contingency arrangements for the 24 March ‘training day’ include court staff bringing forward any ’custody time limit’ cases to ensure there is no risk to the time limit. Courts were also asked to return their ’custody time limit tracker’ by 17 March to identify high-risk cases that might have been affected by potential action.
Summarising contingency arrangements for section 38 cases, the letter states that co-ordinated action is not expected to take place until 1 April, but that there may be some ’localised or targeted’ action beforehand.
According to the letter, the MoJ has asked court regions to identify any such cases taking place before 1 April, particularly high-profile or sensitive cases, for the courts to record and monitor should any issues arise in relation to allocating a duty solicitor.
In 2015 practitioner groups commenced a nationwide boycott, lasting 52 days, of legal aid work under what they described as ’derisory new rates’ introduced on 1 July that year. The second 8.75% fee cut was suspended by then lord chancellor Michael Gove for 12 months beginning on 1 April last year.
Gascoyne said: ‘The reaction by various agencies does expose the importance of defence practitioners within the criminal justice system and that the potential impact of savage cuts is not to be ignored.’
The CPS and the Ministry of Justice have been approached for comment.