Defendants have been left unrepresented in courts after solicitors across the country voted not to take new cases at “derisory” rates when the second tranch of 8.75% fee cuts was introduced at the beginning of July.
The protest action followed a ballot of two special interest groups, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, whose members voted overwhelmingly to refuse new cases after 1 July.
As Counsel went to press, the action had entered its second week and the impact was being felt in courts and police stations as solicitors held their resolve. Some of the few firms that have not taken part in the boycott have reported facing online abuse, which has been condemned by the representative groups as “counterproductive”.
The Ministry of Justice maintained that the courts had been “sitting as usual” and cases at the police station had been picked up within the hour. However, reports on social media site Twitter painted a picture of chaos, with serious criminal hearings, including a murder, having to be adjourned for want of representation. And the Legal Aid Agency confirmed that the Public Defender Service had been drafted in to cover what it described as “a small number of cases”.
Many barristers have given their support to the action and the Criminal Bar Association, which came under fire for calling off direct action over the dual contracting arrangements, has balloted its members for a second time over reverting to its policy of “no returns”.
CBA chair, Tony Cross QC, came in for further criticism after telling his members he would vote against action, favouring continued talks with the Ministry of Justice. He also called on solicitors to help themselves by withdrawing the tenders submitted for the new criminal contracts due to begin next year.
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service and some judges have also angered practitioners by banning the use of robing rooms and other court spaces for meetings about proposed action.
In a speech to the Dinner of Her Majesty’s Judges on 8 July at Mansion House, Justice Secretary Michael Gove MP demonstrated his support for the independent Bar.
Stating his desire to maintain high quality advocacy in the criminal courts, he said: “I am determined to take all the steps I can to ensure we have a healthy and vibrant Bar – and in particular a healthy criminal Bar.”
To that end, he said he was “keen” to take forward the recommendations of Sir Bill Jeffrey’s report. As well as “exploring how we can ensure those who do appear in criminal cases have the right training and are of sufficient ability”, he also pledged to tackle the growing prevalence of referral fees in criminal work.
He said he was aware of “inappropriate payments between parties” and “that is not something I will tolerate. Work should go to the advocate most qualified for the job, not to the highest bidder.”
“Where public money is being used to fund such a vital service as ensuring fair trials before our courts, I want to be sure that every penny is spent on delivering that service,” he said. A consultation is expected in the autumn.
That followed his first speech in post, in which he decried the “two nations in our justice system” – the wealthy, international clients who enjoy a “gold standard” and everyone else who has to put up with a “creaking, outdated” system.
He called on City lawyers to “do a little more”, suggesting they do more pro bono work and somewhat opaquely indicated he was considering some sort of financial levy on the legal profession.