Criminal lawyers have warned that redundancies and firm closures will lead to advice deserts within months of legal aid cuts being introduced, as lawyers around the country stage a day-long protest.
The Criminal Law Solicitors' Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA) said the impact of the first round of 8.75% cuts to solicitors’ fees, being implemented on 20 March, will force hundreds of firms to close.
The government last week unveiled its final package of reforms, pressing ahead with cuts and restructuring, despite opposition from the professions and warnings from its independent advisers – accountants KPMG.
The groups said experienced lawyers will become ‘legal relics’ and that advice deserts will emerge in rural areas, cities and towns.
In protest over fee cuts and other changes to the way criminal legal aid is administered, hundreds of barristers and solicitors are staying away from court today, taking part instead in demonstrations, marches and training days.
The Law Society said that as a membership organisation - not a trade union - it does not have the legal indemnities a trade union would have against direct action. 'This means that individual firms and individual members must make a personal choice. The Society will support and respect all of the decisions and choices our members make and we have offered assistance to the organisers of the training events being held.'
The protest follows a half-day of action in January, when courts were disrupted by lawyers’ non-attendance.
Lawyers in London were set to assemble outside Parliament before marching to the Ministry of Justice to deliver a ‘modern day’ Magna Carta demanding equality before the law for everyone, regardless of means.
Lawyers will attend an afternoon training session at Methodist Central Hall, and be addressed by speakers including the chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee Richard Atkinson.
Similar events are taking place in cities across the country, including Manchester, Liverpool and Hull.
LCCSA president Nicola Hill said: ‘These cuts mean that law firms will rapidly go to the wall in their hundreds, leaving people who can’t afford to pay privately with only the crumbs of legal aid.’
To remain profitable, firms will sack experienced solicitors, replacing them with staff who are ‘unqualified and cheap’.
‘This can only be damaging for justice,’ she said, and it is ordinary people who will suffer ‘third-rate advice’.
‘The march and full day of action sounds a warning bell to everyone in the country about the slippery slope this country is going down – where justice is seen as a luxury, not a right, as enshrined in the Magna Carta 800 years ago,’ said Hill.
Nigel Lithman QC (pictured), chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said: ‘If these cuts are not addressed then the British justice system, which is held in such high esteem around the world, will cease to exist as we know it and the British public can no longer expect true justice to be delivered.’
He said justice secretary Chris Grayling has continually chosen to ignore many offers from members of the bar to work with the MoJ to address the severity and practicality of the cuts. The bar, he said, ‘cannot and will not’ accept these ‘unnecessary and crippling cuts’ and will continue to fiercely oppose them.
An MoJ spokesman said: ‘Legal aid is a vital part of our justice system but we must ensure it is sustainable for those who need it, for those who provide legal services as part of it and for the taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it.’
Agencies involved in the criminal justice system, he said, are taking steps to minimise any upset the court disruption could cause for victims and witnesses.