Leaders of the practitioner groups behind the national boycott of new contract terms for legal aid work have warned their members against 'counterproductive' abuse of firms not taking part.
They were speaking after at least two firms that continue to take work told the Gazette of abusive comments on social media and at least one insulting phone call.
Manchester based Abbey Solicitors and Thomas Boyd Whyte of Bexley, Kent, said they had received numerous complaints from other solicitors for continuing to take work. Abbey told the Gazette that it had never agreed to take direct action, while Thomas Boyd Whyte said it has not been able to take a position as its senior partner is on holiday.
Nadeem Ullah, owner of Abbey, said: ‘We have recently read negative comments about us in social media by fellow professionals who accuse us of being disloyal to the profession. We remind our colleagues the decision to take on publicly funded work is an individual one. We are not a trade union. We therefore ask those unhappy with our stance to respect our individual decision.’
Ullah said the firm did not believe causing disruption to the courts is the answer to the ‘very grave long-term problems’ the criminal justice system faces. ‘As a firm we have taken the decision to continue our commitment to helping the most vulnerable,’ he said.
Thomas Boyd Whyte also reported receiving abuse for continuing to take on own-client work. According to Matthew Coxall, a criminal solicitor at the firm, a junior staff member was told ‘shame on you’ after an anonymous caller asked whether the firm was dealing with new legal aid applications.
He said: ‘The junior member of staff has no understanding of the delicate situation faced by larger firms with substantial overheads. Nor did that member of staff know of any official TBW position, quite simply because in the absence of senior management we do not have a formalized position.'
Coxall said the firm would decide whether to take action next week when the partner returns. He also noted that there have been online allegations of a firm in Bexley handing out business cards outside the magistrates' court, and stressed that no employee at the firm has done this.
The Gazette has removed a number of website comments posted with the apparent intention of encouraging harassment of firms.
Robin Murray (pictured), chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) said: ‘The CLSA would never condone abuse under any circumstances whatever the provocation.
‘Understandably when the overwhelming majority of solicitors in the criminal justice system are standing shoulder to shoulder to fight unsustainable cuts those few who break ranks will not win a popularity contest with colleagues who are making a principled stand against cuts. But that is those non-participating handful of firms' right not to join.’
He added that most of the abuse against firms was aimed at those that were targeting clients of firms taking action. ‘Those firms who do this will be in serious danger of being reported for this misconduct if they breach these rules. Reminding them and if necessary reporting them is be a more responsible effective approach and also possibly a duty if one becomes aware of such a breach of rules as the rules are there to protect the public against the unscrupulous,’ he said.
Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA), echoed these comments: ‘Solicitors have independently decided not to take on new work at these rates. If these firms choose to, it is a matter for them.
‘Whilst such conduct is disappointing and counterproductive, it is not appropriate for them to be subjected to abuse; that said, if they are actively poaching, it cannot be ignored whilst other firms observe the professional conduct codes.’
* The Law Society today issued a revised statement on criminal legal aid following allegations of touting and developments in the House of Lords.
President Andrew Caplen said: 'We have considerable sympathy with the position of solicitors facing the latest round of criminal legal aid cuts. 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.
'We have raised our serious concerns about the fee cuts with the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which issued a report drawing the regulations to the special attention of the House. The report urges the government to investigate the effects of the cuts so far, the anticipated impact of this second cut, and the effect of the introduction of the fixed fee system.
'We have raised particular concerns that the cuts will leave some areas of the country left without any access to criminal legal aid. The government recently responded to the committee on these points but the committee remains dissatisfied with the evidence it has been presented with, and has asked the Ministry of Justice further questions on the ‘sustainability of the service.
‘However, 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 solicitors will undoubtedly be facing difficult decisions as to what to do, both in the short term and in the longer term, in view of the government's decisions. It must be for individual firms to make these decisions based on their own individual 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, not to make unsolicited approaches to members of the public for business, to provide a proper standard of service to their clients and to run their businesses in accordance with sound financial management principles.'