The largest criminal legal aid firms have said they will individually support direct action in a move that has added momentum to legal aid protests ahead of several meetings planned for Monday in response to cuts.
The planned 8.75% cut on publicly funded legal aid budgets for litigators comes into force on Wednesday. Solicitors and barristers are meeting around England and Wales to decide whether they will join lawyers in Merseyside in forgoing work in protest against further cuts.
The Big Firms Group, an alliance of over 30 large criminal legal aid firms that do around 25% of criminal legal aid work, said it would support individual direct action after a meeting held yesterday.
Franklin Sinclair, a senior partner at Tuckers, one of the members of the Big Firm Group, explained that the decision meant that no firms in the group will take on any of the cases refused by other practitioners in areas where direct action will take place.
‘We wanted to get momentum going and give others the confidence that the big firms will either join any direct action or at least won’t do anything to make their action any less effective,’ he said.
Bill Waddington (pictured), chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) said the Big Firms Group’s decision sends out the ‘strongest signal’ that the legal profession has had enough of the government’s legal aid policy, which he said was driving legal aid firms and their staff into financial ruin.
‘Mouthing platitudes about inequality in the law and Magna Carta has absolutely no credibility while the Ministry of Justice is undermining a chance for level-headed reform.
‘All over the country solicitors are joining forces with local barristers to fight for justice. We ask the government and the new lord chancellor to halt the cuts, stop churning out bogus statistics and engage in meaningful discussions.’
Lawyers in locations including London, Birmingham, Leicester, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield will meet on Monday to decide what their approach will be to the upcoming cuts.
Meanwhile, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) and CLSA have extended their ballot on direct action until Monday at 10pm, to ensure all criminal lawyers have the opportunity to vote in light of the events in Liverpool and support from the Big Firms Group.
Jonathan Black, chair of the LCCSA, said that the ballot so far appears to be ‘overwhelmingly in support of action’.
‘It has been said that there will never be unity amongst solicitors due to apparent conflicting interests, [and] this has enabled [the government] to prey upon apparent disunity to drive through the these swinging cuts,’ he said.
‘We are united in agreeing that the cuts would provide huge barriers to access to justice, and that we stand together in inviting Mr [Michael] Gove to think again. Whether the leadership of the bar wish to stand alongside us once again is a matter for them, but we have no time for self-interested deals.’
Last week the Criminal Bar Association said that it would not call on barristers to stop work in opposition to the duty provider scheme, prompting a furious response from solicitor practitioner groups and some members of the bar.
But hitting back, CBA chair Tony Cross said that the association cannot fight solicitors’ battle for them.
Birmingham’s larger criminal firms also agreed to take action at a meeting today. A statement by Simon Walton, consultant at The Firm Solicitors and CLSA committee member said: 'All of those present were in favour of taking effective individual action to protest against the reduction in criminal legal aid fees.
'All present will support the direct action taken by their colleagues in other areas of the country and will not undertake work in those areas of the country if invited to do so. There was agreement that individual action would only be effective with support on a local and national level.
'The tone of today’s meeting was very positive and it was agreed that action in respect of these devastating fee cuts was necessary.'
Solicitors and members of the bar practising in the West Midlands are invited to attend a meeting that is to take place on Monday (29 June) at 5pm.
The venue is yet to be fixed.