The government has sought to play down the impact of the ongoing legal aid fee dispute with solicitors, after a Crown court judge was forced to take action to deal with the increasing number of unrepresented defendants that have resulted from it.
Sitting at Hull Crown Court yesterday, His Honour Judge Jeremy Richardson QC published a comprehensive 11-page practice statement detailing how the court will deal with affected cases that come before it.
Since 9 April solicitors in Hull, as well as other parts of the country including Exeter, Plymouth and the Midlands, have refused to take new Crown court cases in protest over legal aid fee cuts.
Since then defendants have appeared in the Crown court without legal representation.
Cases that started in April are now progressing towards the plea and case management hearings, where decisions about how the cases progress are required to be taken, including the entering of pleas and service of evidence.
Richardson dealt with 19 points that he said are likely to be issues in cases when a defendant is involuntarily unrepresented, including the service of prosecution papers, credit for guilty pleas, custody time limits and psychiatric issues.
He said the court will proceed to set timetables for cases in accordance with statutory requirements and the Criminal Procedure Rules and custody time limits will apply.
Prosecution papers, he said, will need to be sent to the defendants’ home addresses where they are on bail or to prison where they are detained. Special arrangements will need to made by the court or prison governor for detained prisoners to view sensitive material that would not be permitted to be retained by a prisoner.
The judge said the court may alert defendants to the services of the Public Defender Service and enquire if they want to instruct them, as well as pointing out that there may be solicitors who would be prepared to take their case.
Richardson said that the court had ‘no view’ on the merits of the dispute, stating that is ‘entirely a matter for the profession and the government’.
However, he stressed the ‘truly important’ part played by ‘good solicitors and barristers’ in the administration of justice.
The judge also highlighted the ‘additional burden’ that has fallen on the Crown Prosecution Service as a result of the action.
A CPS spokesman said the issue was isolated to Hull, but had increased the number of cases in the city that have been adjourned for trial and increased the CPS workload, leading to requests for extra time to comply with court orders.
He said: ‘We are doing everything we can to ensure that cases are heard as quickly as possible.’
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the disruption was ‘unnecessary and only inconveniences the courts’.
She said the ‘boycott’ by some solicitors has been confined to a few parts of the country and that its impact has been ‘minimal’, with most courts operating normally.
She added: ‘We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, which even after reform will still cost around £1.5bn a year. At a time of an unprecedented financial challenge, we had no choice but to significantly reduce the amount spent each year.’
‘We’ve always said we want to do all that we can to help lawyers facing fee cuts, and have spoken at length with them and made changes to our initial plan as a result.’
However, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association BIll Waddington said the action ‘is beginning to bite and will get worse’.
He said the CLSA and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association had repeatedly written to the lord chancellor Chris Grayling requesting a meeting, but he has declined to do so.