Criminal lawyers are set to swamp Westminster today in a mass protest against government plans to slash legal aid rates, with police told to expect more than 1,000 demonstrators.
Trials are expected to grind to halt as criminal barristers refuse to attend court for the day, amid suggestions that a series of similar actions will follow. Bar leaders have also imposed a “no returns” policy, meaning that briefs for missed hearings will not be picked up.
The march – scheduled to finish out side the Houses of Parliament – falls against bubbling solicitor anger at their leadership’s dealings with ministers over the cuts, with senior lawyers reiterating their call on top Law Society figures to resign.
Liverpool-based partner James Parry has written to Chancery Lane’s president and chief executive demanding they stand down.
At the end of last year, Parry triggered a successful no-confidence motion in the leadership (17 December 2013). However, president Nicholas Fluck and chief executive Des Hudson resisted widespread calls for their heads, claiming that despite losing the profession’s vote, they had the support of Chancery Lane’s ruling council.
In a letter to Fluck earlier this week, Parry of Parry Welch Lacey Solicitors, attacked the society’s stance regarding the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) proposals as achieving nothing but to “force many long standing criminal practices out of business”.
Parry goes on to say: “Given your failure to respond to the concerns that were set out before you at the special general meeting and your failure to deliver any improvement in what the Lord Chancellor has to offer, the time has surely come for you and Mr Hudson to resign.”
Parry told The Lawyer that he was reluctant to inflict more expense on the profession by calling another SGM. But he said antagonism towards the Chancery Lane hierarchy was so fevered that getting backing for a second meeting would not be difficult.
“There is definitely enough support for another SGM,” he said. “But there should be no need for one. The leadership should have done the decent thing and walked away. But if they don’t, then we’ll have no choice but to call another SGM to try to force them to do so. There was a time when people did the honourable thing, but that time seems to have passed at the Law Society.”
A Law Society spokeswoman responded to the resignation calls, saying: “The president and the chief executive, with the full support of the society’s council, continue to focus their efforts on helping as many members as possible deal with these unwelcome changes.”
Today’s protest comes several weeks after a similar day of action at the beginning of the year and will see some 3,000 barristers refusing to attend criminal hearings. The action follows an announcement at the end of last month from Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that, despite widespread objections, the government would implement its plans to slash criminal legal aid rates generally by 17.5 per cent and by 30 per cent for very high cost cases.
Nigel Lithman QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the government aimed to start cutting rates from the summer. “Before then,” he said, “the criminal bar will be affected by people in their droves leaving the profession. They will simply be unable to continue working a the proposed rates.”
Lithman said the cuts created an access to justice crisis and that they would not impact solely on those accused of crimes. “The real impact is on the availability of justice – and that doesn’t just mean defending the accused, but also prosecuting them. There will simply be unavailable the sort of talent you need successfully to prosecute serious criminals.”
Nicola Hill, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association predicted the cuts would “mean that law firms will rapidly go to the wall in their hundreds, leaving people who can’t afford to pay privately with only the crumbs of legal aid. Firms will sack experienced, more expensive solicitors, replacing them with those who are unqualified and cheap.
“This can only be damaging for justice. The solicitors who are still in business quite simply won’t have the time, money or expertise to prepare cases properly. And it’s the ordinary people, those we don’t hear about, who don’t make the headlines, who will have to accept third rate advice. Not the wealthy who can pay privately.”
From Monday, criminal barristers will refuse to take return briefs. Lithman said many are done for as little as £46 per day, or for free. He said the move was designed to make the point to ministers that “in the past, that work has been done out of good will rather than for proper remuneration. The bar has continued to do that work as part of its integrity and professionalism. But that good will will stop.”
Responding to the day of action, the Law Society said: “As a membership organisation – not a trade union – we do not have the legal indemnities a trade union would have against direct action. This means that individual firms and individual members must make a personal choice. The society will support and respect all of the decisions and choices our members make and we have offered assistance to the organisers of the training events being held that day.”