Groups representing criminal solicitors are to consider refusing to accept any new cases after the first tranche of fee cuts is implemented on Thursday.
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association are holding a meeting in Manchester on Wednesday 19 March to discuss further steps they may take nationally in protest over the £220m cuts to legal aid.
It is understood options to be considered will include refusing to accept new cases from Thursday, working ‘to rule’ in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Rules, and further ‘days of action’.
Advice from counsel has been sought by the two groups on a possible judicial review of the justice secretary’s decision to proceed with the cuts.
For solicitors, the first 8.75% of a 17.5% fee reduction for police station and magistrates’ court work will be implemented on Thursday. The profession argues that the cuts will drive many firms out of business and compromise the quality of representation.
CLSA chair Bill Waddington said: ‘Many people are considering that to take work at 8.75% less than current rates could place them in breach of their professional obligations to clients and to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.’
Waddington said the effect of solicitors not taking new work would be ‘immediate’ and could bring the criminal justice system to a standstill.
The strength of feeling against the cuts and reforms to legal aid contracting was expressed in Manchester last weekend when 160 solicitors, barristers and advice agency workers signed up to the ‘Manchester declaration’. The declaration calls for action in support of ‘non-compliance’ with the cuts.
The CLSA and LCCSA have asked firms to send to Wednesday’s meeting an equity partner or someone else form the practice who can ‘bind’ the firm.
Since 10 March criminal barristers have operated a ‘no returns’ policy for Crown court cases – meaning barristers are not picking up cases returned by colleagues.
The professions have already staged two days of protest; a half-day in January, followed by a full day earlier this month, when courts across the country were disrupted.
Chair of the Criminal Bar Association Nigel Lithman QC said that over the last week, 200 cases have been returned and only three picked up. The bar may escalate its action by refusing to accept new cases.
It is also not ruling out further ‘days of action’ when barristers will not attend court.
Following the government’s final announcement on the changes to criminal legal aid, the Law Society has been running roadshows around the country helping firms get to grips with what the changes mean.
It has also published guidance for firms on ways to consider reorganising in order to cope with the reforms.