Row between barristers and solicitors erupts over legal aid cuts deal

Barristers on the Northern Circuit are leading opposition to a controversial deal between criminal bar leaders and the government cut last week in a bid to settle a dispute over ministers’ plans to slash legal aid rates.

An extraordinary general meeting of the Criminal Bar Association has been called for this Wednesday, with Northern Circuit barristers maintaining the current deal runs the risk of splitting the legal profession.

Criminal law specialist solicitors are understood to be incensed that barristers appear to have cut a deal that still leaves the larger branch of the profession facing average cuts of 17.5 per cent over the next two years.

Solicitors went ahead with two “days of action” this Monday and Tuesday (31 March and 1 April), during which they will refuse to attend court hearings. Two previous days of action this year have involved unified action between solicitors and barristers.

But the CBA and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced a deal last week that sees barristers drop strike action as well as their refusal to handle returned briefs in exchange for temporary government concessions. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said proposed changes to the advocates graduated fee scheme will be postponed until summer 2015.

However, the deal does not have unchallenged support among barristers. It is understood that this week’s EGM will vote on a simple motion on whether to back the deal.

“There was a lack of discussion with rank and file members,” Tom Handley, director of Exchange Chambers, which has offices in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, told The Lawyer. “The feeling was we had the Ministry of Justice on the ropes, but now we’ve accepted an offer that we needn’t have.”

His chambers released a statement saying “our criminal team members voted to pursue the no-returns policy for an initial four-week period and not to undertake defence very high cost cases work at the proposed new rates. Exchange Chambers sees no reason to resile from that position and would hope that the solidarity and co-operation between the professions, which has been so evident recently, will continue”.

Handley went on: “The no-returns policy was having a major affect on the courts. Grayling wouldn’t give in completely because that would be the end of his political career, but we could have got a better deal and not split the legal profession.”

He said barristers on the Northern Circuit were concerned about the impact of the cuts on solicitors and that the CBA deal would split the legal profession.

Richard Atkinson, chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said Chancery Lane was in “a very difficult position in relation to the bar”. He was aware that solicitor practitioner groups had expressed dismay at the CBA move, but he refrained from criticising the association.

A Law Society statement said “The Law Society does not regard it as appropriate to comment upon the internal affairs of other professional/representative bodies.”

Chancery Lane reiterated its neutral stance regarding the on-going solicitor days of action. The statement said “Some solicitors are taking part in two days of action. Some have chosen not to take part and work normally. The society will support and respect all of the decisions and choices our members make. We fully understand why some criminal lawyers have reached the point of despair after two decades without increases in legal aid rates, shrinking volumes of work and the MoJ’s further cuts.”

Atkinson maintained the society’s position had been consistent regarding organised action. “Because we are not a trade union, we cannot encourage action,” he said, claiming it would be illegal as the Law Society does not benefit from the legislative protections enjoyed by trade unions.

“There is a thin line between providing vocal support and what might be viewed as encouragement under the legislation,” he said.

CBA chairman Nigel Lithman was unavailable for comment. However in his weekly e-mail message to criminal barristers, he maintained the deal was the best available.

Lithman confirmed that ballot details would be distributed to CBA members tomorrow by e-mail. The single question to be voted on will be: “Do you wish to continue no returns and days of action until all the cuts and reductions in (solicitors’) contracts are abandoned?”