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Criminal barristers have dropped plans for further strike action after the government today made temporary concessions in the long running battle over proposed cuts to legal aid rates.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced that proposed changes to the advocates graduated fee scheme will be postponed until summer 2015.
He said the move would allow the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to assess the findings of on-going reviews of criminal advocacy by Sir Bill Jeffrey and Sir Brian Leveson, “as well as any impact on legal aid spend from falling crime rates, and earlier remuneration changes”.
In addition, the MoJ said it will bring forward interim payments for litigators at plea and case management hearings this summer, in a move welcomed by solicitors’ representatives.
Making the announcement, Grayling said: “I have always said that, given the current economic climate, I have no choice but to make savings, but that I also wanted to do what I could to ease their effects on lawyers. Hopefully today’s agreement proves that I am true to my word. Following constructive discussion with leaders of the Bar and Law Society, we have agreed further measures to help lawyers as they prepare for legal aid savings.
Reacting to the postponement of the fee scheme, Bar Council Chairman Nicholas Lavender QC, said the move “points to a better future from the one which many have feared, and is to be welcomed”. Criminal law barristers and solicitors have brought criminal trials grinding to a halt over the last few months by staging two days of action in protest at the government’s plans,.
Lavender said barristers had always recognised “that the government has had to face tough decisions in making savings in public expenditure. But legal aid barristers who are working at the front line of public service, often in difficult and demanding circumstances, have too often found themselves at the sharp end of those decisions”.
The bar said deferment of fee scheme changes would allow “everyone to take stock of the outcome of the independent review of criminal advocacy”.
Solicitors were less enthusiastic about the MoJ’s partial compromise. Criminal specialists have just been hit by the first tranche of a planned 17.5 per cent average slashing of fees.
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson said the additional funding around effective plea and case management hearings “will ease cash flow for all providers during 2014/15 and provide some assistance to our hard-pressed members who are facing dire circumstances and battling to deal with the 8.75 per cent cut, which came into effect last week”.
Hudson pointed out that the society maintained that the overall cuts programme was not sustainable. He called on the Legal Aid Agency to support solicitors in 30 geographical areas where he claimed society-commissioned analysis from accountancy firm KPMG “indicated the cuts pose a very serious challenge”.