Over the last year legal professionals have faced a series of cuts in legal aid fees which has resulted in them repeatedly protesting against reductions in services for those that need them. Now they are facing the prospect of further cuts industrial action is a looming possibility.
Liverpool solicitors and barristers are threating to refuse to manage any new criminal law case for the 1st of July 2015 in protests against cuts in legal aid fees.
One hundred of Liverpool’s leading criminal law solicitors have agreed to take direct action against the latest 8.75% cuts. This will be the second set of extreme cuts this year.
Barristers and solicitors in other towns and cities are also considering direct actions and are planning meetings to discuss the impact.
The Justice Secretary Michael Gove approved the cuts but put on hold cuts which will directly affect barristers who are working on high profile crown court cases.
Direct action last year against the 17.5% cuts failed to deter Chris Grayling the former Justice Secretary from implementing the cuts and now many people who work in the criminal justice system feel that they cannot provide an equal playing field for individuals who cannot afford to pay for legal advice.
New contracts for duty solicitors to cover police stations and magistrates courts are due to come into effect in January 2016 and will change the rates paid for preparing a range of legal casework.
The fees in some areas are expected to fall by a further 25-30% next year, with the rates for some categories dropping by more than half.
Barristers in Merseyside confirmed that they “would not be prepared to undertake work on any case with a date on or after 1 July in recognition of the damage that these cuts will have upon the independent bar”.
“The government recognises that the profession is fragile and yet continues to take grave risks with the stability of the criminal justice system. Every chambers in the city and the vast majority of solicitors were represented … Similar meetings are being held around the country.”
The Legal Aid Agency has confirmed that “insufficient” tender bids were received from solicitors for new contracts in three of the 85 areas in England and Wales: Devon, the Isle of Wight, and Dyfed/Powys. Firms in those areas, it implies, do not believe they can provide a service on the funding made available.
Solicitors say such “advice deserts” will become much more common in future and will leave the poorest people in our community without the ability to receive good legal advice.
In a letter to the Guardian newspaper, a retired circuit judge, Barrington Black, writes that barristers and solicitors are unable to afford to pay their bills with legal aid fees at their current levels.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Although the transition will be challenging, the changes we are pressing ahead with are designed to ensure we have a system of criminal legal aid that delivers value for money to taxpayers, that provides high-quality legal advice to those that need it most, and that puts the profession on a sustainable footing for the long term.
“Having listened carefully to the case put by the profession we decided not to reduce advocacy fees, but instead to work closely with them to explore alternative ways of securing these savings. We have also said that in July 2016 an independent reviewer will assess the impact of the new arrangements.”