Lawyers employed by the Public Defender Service (PDS) have been deployed in police stations as part of the government’s response to action by practitioners across England and Wales protesting against legal aid cuts, the Gazette has learned.
Direct action, involving boycotts of new instructions, began on 1 July, the day a fee cut of 8.75% came into effect.
As the Gazette went to press, the Legal Aid Agency confirmed that the PDS had picked up ‘a small number of cases’ in Liverpool.
According to solicitors in the city, lawyers from the PDS are being put up in hotels overnight in an effort to minimise the impact of the protest.
Lawyers in Merseyside were the first to announce they would take individual direct action against the introduction of a second 8.75% fee cut. Their decision was emulated at meetings throughout England and Wales last week.
Zoe Gascoyne, chair of the Liverpool Law Society criminal practice committee, said: ‘It’s not viable contingency as it’s costly and leaves the taxpayer paying for already very well remunerated people to travel out of the area to do a job that is being done far more efficiently by private practice.’
The PDS is a department of the Legal Aid Agency which employs 28 solicitors and normally operates from offices in Cheltenham, Darlington, Pontypridd and Swansea. A report in 2007 found that PDS costs were between 71% and 93% higher than those of private firms for police station cases.
Despite the deployment, the Ministry of Justice described the impact of the first two days of direct action as ‘negligible’.
In a statement, the MoJ said: ‘The courts sat as usual and the vast majority of cases requiring a solicitor at the police station were picked up within an hour.’
The protest gained momentum after the Big Firms Group, an alliance of around 35 legal aid firms, said it would support individual direct action the week before the cuts took effect. Franklin Sinclair, a senior partner at Tuckers, one of the members of the group, said none of its members will take on any of the cases refused by other practitioners in areas where direct action will take place.
As the action developed, HM Courts & Tribunals Service inflamed opinion by banning solicitors from holding meetings in courts. A spokesman said: ‘In line with usual practice, we are not allowing lawyers to hold meetings on court premises to discuss how best to disrupt the work of the court. This is not an appropriate use of court facilities.’
Opposition among solicitors seemed to be hardening as the Gazette went to press, with the release of the results of a ballot conducted by the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, which has 1,100 members, and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA), which has 750 members. Of the 1,163 solicitors who responded, 1,056 – 96% – voted in favour of action.
LCCSA president Jonathan Black told the Gazette that the practitioner groups ‘have always been reluctant to take action to the extent that vulnerable clients in police custody were left unrepresented’.
But he added: ‘We are at breaking point and we can’t let the government exploit our fear of abandoning the vulnerable and dispossessed when, in fact, it is so we can defend and protect these very same people properly in the future that we are, as individual firms, resorting to such a stance.’
Meanwhile, the Criminal Bar Association announced that it is balloting members on whether they want to support solicitors by reviving last year’s ‘no returns’ policy and refusing new work with a representation order dated from 1 July. This followed an informal vote in May in which the CBA said that 96% of respondents in a turnout of 35% had backed direct action.
The Law Society said it had ‘considerable sympathy’ with solicitors facing the latest round of criminal legal aid cuts.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: ‘We also understand the significant anger that exists over the damaging effects of government policy on access to justice and on dedicated professionals and small businesses who have had no increases to legal aid fees since 1992 and have faced significant cuts.’
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.’
Caplen said that individual firms must make decisions based on their own individual circumstances. ‘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.’
What impact has direct action had in your area? Will firms continue to support action? Email your police station and court experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org