The national campaign to boycott legal aid work under new terms gathered pace today despite early signs of dissent. Meetings in London and Manchester agreed unanimously not to accept work on new contract terms coming into effect from tomorrow.
However yesterday evening practitioners in Leicester agreed not to take direct action after one of the major firms in the area signalled that it would not join in. They are to meet again tonight. Earlier in the day, lawyers in Teesside also decided they were unable to act after two firms said they would not be participating.
In Manchester there was a unanimous agreement from all the firms present not to crry out any own-client work or to apply for legal aid for any cases from 1 July. But practitioners will continue duty work to avoid breaching their contract.
The firms that agreed on taking action represented about 95% of the firms in the area. Most barristers present at the meeting also said they would support solicitors in taking action.
Lawyers in London unanimously agreed that the levels of funding about to be introduced were ‘untenable’, and that the two-tier contract scheme risks ‘irreparable and unconscionable damage to the criminal justice system’.
Firms at the meeting agreed not to take on any legal aid cases after Wednesday, while others not present indicated their support. They will continue to take duty work, although this is also under review.
Members of the bar at the London meeting also confirmed they would not undertake any work on cases with a representation order dated on or after 1 July, in recognition of the damage the cuts will have on the independent bar.
It was also proposed that the bar would re-introduce the 'no returns' policy for existing cases in the Crown court.
Jonathan Black (pictured), president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association said: ‘Had the government listened to our representations they would know that these cuts are not only unnecessary but dangerous.
‘We have drafted a protocol, and firms that seek to act in breach of this are letting themselves, their professional colleagues and their clients down.’
Firms in Leeds, Devon, Kirklees and Derby also agreed to take direct action from Wednesday. In Reading, six out of nine firms attending a meeting agreed to take action.
Meanwhile, members of the Big Firms Group have sought advice from Blackstone Chambers' Dinah Rose QC on the action.
A letter will be sent out to justice secretary Michael Gove tomorrow saying the firms consider the legal aid cuts ‘unlawful’.
Regions including North Wales, Cardiff and the West Midlands will vote today on whether to join the boycott.
Lawyers in Kent, Halifax, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Bradford, Bath and Bristol will also take direct action. But practitioners in Norwich were unable to reach a unanimous decision to take direct action after the largest provider in the area said they would only take action if it is endorsed by the Law Society.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said Chancery Lane has 'considerable sympathy' with the plight of solicitors affected and understands the 'significant anger' that exists.
But he added: 'It is the longstanding position of the Society that it cannot support, organise or lead collective action. 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.
'Many practitioners will be facing difficult decisions as to what to do. It must be for individual firms to make these decisions based on their own circumstances. In making them, they must consider very carefully, not only their legal obligations under their current legal aid contracts and under competition law, but also their professional obligations under the SRA Code of Conduct to clients and to the justice system. These professional obligations include their duty to ensure that their existing clients are properly represented now and under any new contracting regime, to provide a proper standard of service to their clients and to run their businesses in accordance with sound financial management principles.'