Now lawyers are following barristers lead and taking direct action over Legal Aid

As the strength of professional feeling over Legal Aid intensifies – will these groups force the system to the point of collapse?

Credit: Bywire News, Canva
Credit: Bywire News, Canva
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LONDON (Bywire News) - There are more headaches ahead for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Dominic Raab. Because after more than five weeks of action by barristers over the decimation of Legal Aid, now a body representing lawyers is doing similar. 

The CBA: a masterclass in direct action

As Bywire News has been following, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has been taking direct action, in the form of refusing return work. This has been ongoing since April 11 and involves barristers not accepting extra work that is not booked in with them – for example, if a trial overrun or another barrister ends up being double booked and has to drop a case.

The CBA got to this point because of successive government cuts to, and disregard for, Legal Aid. An independent review found that it needed to inject at least £135m immediately into the system. The government’s response was to dither and delay its report on the review’s findings; eventually publishing this on March 15. 

Some legal professionals called it a “masterclass in deception” – saying that the 15% funding increase it offered was not what the independent review explicitly said was needed and that it wasn’t enough, anyway. Then, the MoJ effectively tried to strike-break the CBA by encouraging law firms to pick up return cases – or ‘scab’ if you prefer. This is because the CBA’s action was working: the criminal justice and courts system has already become backlogged and many other professionals have been supportive of the action. 

Now, it seems the CBA has in part prompted a group of lawyers to take a stand, too. And the result could see further problems for the MoJ. 

Lawyers stepping up

Bywire News previously reported that the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) was considering taking direct action over the state of Legal Aid. The figures are stark:

  • From 2018 to 2021, the number of criminal duty solicitors outside London fell by about 7%.
  • The number of criminal lawyers under the age of 35 has fallen by almost 35%.
  • Since 1996, real-terms criminal defence fees (via Legal Aid) have fallen by 40-45%.

The LCCSA ran a survey of its members on whether or not it should take action. This was in the form of, among other things, taking their full lunch breaks and refusing low-paid magistrates’ cases like burglary and assaults on emergency workers. The results came in – and the majority of respondents voted for it. As the Law Gazette reported LCCSA president Hesham Puri said: 

The verdict is clear. Our words must be backed by action. Defence solicitors will say "no" to low-paid cases like burglary where they frankly end up paying for the "privilege" to work. Our goodwill has run out and will no longer prop up a broken justice system. The action will, inevitably, cause yet more havoc

Is a collapse coming?

The Law Gazette wrote:

The action will commence on 25 May, starting with burglary cases. The LCCSA, which has 870 members, says cases in the magistrates’ court could collapse with defendants unable to access a lawyer. Crown courts would experience further disruption as cases tried ‘either way’ – such as harassment and stalking - would be unable to proceed”.

Just to top the situation off, as the Evening Standard reported a review by the Criminal Justice Joint Inspection has just found the justice system in a dire state – citing that the problems stem from well before the pandemic. 

There is a clear and vocal movement now within the legal profession to push back against the government over Legal Aid. The very fact that we’re seeing a joining of forces from different professional bodies over the issues shows the underlying strength of feeling. But will these bodies and their members take the system to the brink? It may be needed to force a government, whose MO centres around obtuseness, to act. 

(Writing by Steve Topple, editing by Klaudia Fior)

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