Criminal defence lawyers’ ‘annus horribilis’ continues

That this year will go down as an ‘annus horribilis’ for the criminal defence profession is pretty much guaranteed – but it is not over yet.

Just to recap, back in March every criminal law firm in the country received a notice terminating its legal aid contract for 2004 to make way for amendments to the standard terms. This was not construed as an auspicious start by an already jittery criminal defence profession.

At the end of September, lawyers voted unanimously at a meeting at Friends House in North London to refuse to sign up to the contract when the time comes next April, as reported in LawZone (7 October). No doubt their resolve was stiffened after having heard Tony Blair lay into the “legal aid gravy train” in his conference speech the day before.

While that is the backdrop for the present impasse between the lawyers and their paymasters, life seems to be becoming tougher by the week. Tony Edward, Legal Services Commissioner, dropped a bombshell to delegates at the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) Conference last week when he announced that that the number of firms contracted to do publicly-funded legal aid work would be slashed from 2,900 to somewhere below 1,000 within five years. Exactly where such a cull will leave defendants remains to be seen.

“The big problem I foresee, apart from the blow to morale and the uncertainty the profession has to live with, is that in the course of reducing the number of firms there can be no guarantee that solicitors working in the firms that lose out will carry on working in the criminal law – and so we could end up with one-third of the number of solicitors and not just law firms,” comments CLSA chairman Rodney Warren. “The [Legal Services] Commission (LSC) has a huge responsibility to get this right.”

Then there was news earlier this month that the Department for Constitutional Affairs was exploring the idea of a standard fee to replace the upper and lower fees in a new consultation paper on the trial review management project. For example, there would be a basic payment of £195 for a guilty plea no matter how much work is done unless costs exceeded £850.

As defence lawyers were still reeling from such blows, the proposed changes to the contract terms were published on Friday (21 November). Certainly, first impressions are not good. It looks as if the CLSA will be calling on members not to sign next April and so, for the time being, the stand-off continues.

“There are more changes than I expected, and they appear to look towards greater control on the part of the LSC and – surprise, surprise – they give nothing back,” comments Warren.

It is hard to resist the impression that ministers are proceeding with an unseemly haste to sort out those defence lawyers.