Judges' conduct in cases where an advocate cannot be found due to the criminal bar's legal aid protest may push solicitors under increasing pressure to down tools, MPs have heard.
Criminal barristers have been declining to take on work with a representation order dated from 1 April in protest against reforms to the advocates' graduated fee scheme. The Criminal Bar Association has advised its 4,000 members to adopt a 'no returns' policy from Friday.
The Commons justice select committee, holding a one-off evidence session on criminal legal aid, was told that solicitors were being put under huge pressure to help ensure Crown court cases stay on track.
Daniel Bonich, vice chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, said some solicitors were being asked to attend and conduct hearings. 'There are reports of cases where non-qualified people have effectively been bullied by the judge to conduct a hearing. One where a secretary conducted a hearing for a sentencing,' he added. An unrepresented defendant reportedly received a life sentence.
Bonich said solicitors understand why the criminal bar is taking action, but pointed out that solicitors are the 'client-facing part of the profession. We're having to explain to clients why they do not have counsel'.
When asked if solicitors will withdraw their professional services in support of barristers, Bonich said: 'Yes - but not necessarily in support of barristers but as part of a larger issue.'
Bonich said the conduct that solicitors were having to deal with in court was making them feel 'more annoyed than they have for a very long time... I cannot say anything is imminent. But the mood music is changing dramatically'.
Solicitors are focusing their attention on the government and judiciary's conduct, Bonich said. 'If we feel we're being forced into a corner, and forced to do work we do not feel competent in doing, [you] are likely to see similar action from solicitors in the not-too-distant future, in my view'.
Labour MP Ellie Reeves said one of her constituents, a criminal defence specialist, told her last week that he had been contacted by the Legal Aid Agency to find representation for a pre-trial preparation hearing in a murder case.
Reeves said: 'My constituent explained that no one on their approved list of counsel was available. They weren't willing to go to the Public Defender Service because they did not feel that would be in the client's best interests because it was a murder charge. [They] came under pressure then from the Legal Aid Agency about the terms of their contract - in effect implied threats that contracts may be terminated unless counsel was found.'