Many solicitors lost clients and suffered 'unmitigated damage' after putting themselves in the line of fire to support the criminal bar's protest over legal aid fee cuts this year, barristers have been told.
However, writing for the Criminal Bar Association's website, Daniel Bonich, vice chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said the government's £15m offer showed that, 'when it counts', solicitors and barristers can work together, before calling for both sides to unite to fight court reforms.
Earlier this year criminal barristers declined to take on work with a representation order dated from 1 April in protest against reforms to the advocates' graduated fee scheme. Solicitors were put under huge pressure to ensure Crown court cases stayed on track, MPs heard in May.
Bonich congratulated the CBA 'for a job well done'. For the first time, he said, 'there is a sense that the battle for hearts and minds is being won. Solicitors supported that action and many put themselves in the firing line: many have lost clients, some have had truly horrendous press reporting and unmitigated damage to their reputations. But we showed that when it counts, solicitors and barristers can work together'.
Now, he said, both sides must work together to address HM Courts & Tribunals Service's court modernisation programme. 'Lessons have not been learnt by HMCTS. Hot on the heels of millions of pounds worth of "ClickShare" equipment gathering dust in courtrooms across the land, the latest Deus ex machina: digitisation and virtual justice. Technology can help, but it is not the silver bullet it is proclaimed to be. Reports in pilot areas for virtual courts show an increase in remands, custodial sentences and average sentence lengths,' he said.
Acknowledging that modernisation is overdue, Bonich asked 'why can’t we do better than warned lists and floating trials' when he can order something online which can be delivered within a couple of hours.
Bonich said the association supports the CBA's campaign on working conditions, warning that practitioners are damaging their health, relationships and work-life balance 'to keep the wheels spinning'. He stressed this 'cannot and should not be a model for a successful modern justice system'.
He concluded: 'We have seen with the recent AGFS battle that when we are working together, we can achieve what many thought was impossible. The true adversary - public, political and professional apathy - is on the run. And that is reason to be hopeful.'
Meanwhile, the High Court will today begin hearing the Law Society's challenge over legal aid fee cuts for Crown court litigators.