COMMENT: When suddenly in late June it was decided by solicitors to ‘down tools’ – as we could not work at unsustainable rates – many of us were shocked by the vast number of practitioners that rallied to the rebellion. It was as if all the suppressed rage at the injustice of two decades of pay freezes, suddenly exploded and spread across the whole of the UK from Liverpool and Manchester to Kent, Devon and Surrey.
It spreads daily.
The MoJ greatly miscalculated on a number of different levels. Firstly, because we had never responded like this before, they wrongly believed we did not have the stomach for the fight. Well now they are learning just how criminal lawyers fight. With the same effectiveness and commitment that we show our clients – and with the passion that has been taken for granted for so long.
Secondly, the MoJ felt, if they entered a shabby little deal with the senior criminal bar to preserve the Crown Court advocates’ fee, that they were safe from disruption. This was compounded by the new Lord Chancellor’s first speech in which Michael Gove talked about the quality of bar representation – but failed to acknowledge all the fine work done by solicitors in 97% of all cases at all levels. It was insulting and helped light the touch fuse for rebellion. It also underestimated the huge support from many at the bar for their solicitor friends.
Thirdly, the Government failed to grasp that, although the independent bar is vital to the health of our criminal justice system, the real engine room that drives the system is the critical mass of dedicated solicitors without whom the system rapidly collapses – as can now be seen.
Now let’s look at the present chaos. In the Magistrates courts, unrepresented defendants are appearing and being remanded in custody (often on serious charges such a murder as in Bristol) many of whom are unable to adequately speak for themselves due to mental health issues. If you had seen the anguished reports of solicitors having to stand by and watch the shabby treatment clients are receiving without the benefit of legal representation, you would know how desperate solicitors have become to stand by whilst rough justice is handed out.
In the police stations suspects are being held for hours because no solicitor can be found in order for the police to comply with their right for legal representation. Prisoners are ‘stacking up’ in cells for hours. The Duty Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC) is close to melt down having often to make 40 to 50 calls to find a solicitor over many hours.
What is the MoJ message? It is ‘Business as usual’. In fact the MoJ, in keeping with their disreputable history of misleading statements (for example, the nonsense they talk about international comparisons of spend on legal aid) are at it again. Their press officers insist there is little disruption in the courts and police stations. Anyone who doubts the effect in the courts just has to visit them and see for themselves. We shall shortly be revealing a quite deliberate manipulation and distortion of the DSCC police station case allocation figures to attempt to mask that the system is in meltdown already. It is disturbing that Government is lying to the media and its own people to hide the consequences of its own attack upon legal aid. We have the evidence.
What of the Crown Court? Cases are already backing up and I am afraid over the next few days things there are going to get really difficult for these courts. Many high profile cases will be stalled causing distress for all involved. This will be greatly exacerbated by many counsel’s chambers ignoring their executive committees and joining with local solicitors in refusing to work at the new post July 1 rates. It is highly probable that most counsel will join next week if the CBA ballot goes the way anticipated and hoped for by many counsel (including former chair Michael Turner QC). We watch the near horizon for the Bar battle pennants returning to the fight as promised to me by Mark George QC.
A few establishment senior counsel have done their very best to obfuscate and delay the arrival of the bar to the fight due to solicitors not withdrawing their 2 tier bids. But the cuts are here now. No one, including big firms asked for the flawed 2 tier system. It is entirely an MOJ delivery vehicle for cuts. It will not survive if the cuts are defeated. You cannot build a de facto alliance between those who bid, those who did not plus counsel opposed to ‘2 tier’ and then ruthlessly abandon these allies. There are better ideas out there to cope with falling volumes of work and low rates that respect duty status and client goodwill of all firms.
This is an historic moment for our centuries-old legal profession. This is the first time that solicitors have individually withdrawn their labour. This must be the first time any body of people has taken action in support of a ‘pay freeze’. We have not had an increase in 20 years, just cuts. You can push people only so far.
We are slow to anger but years of insults and neglect were the tinder that have caught fire sparked by this latest entirely unjustifiable cut which the profession and all experts warned the MOJ not to do. I feel sorry for the Lord Chancellor. He inherited this mess from his predecessor. Let us see if he has the political skills and courage to recognise that if he wants cooperation in the Leveson proposals for reform to save millions, he must first lift the cut (the statutory instrument has now been now rejected in the House of Lords). He must abandon ‘2 tier’ and enter immediate dialogue on all these issues. The potential prize is wholesale reform with our active support.
It is within Mr Gove’s grasp if only he reaches out for it.
Robin is a member of Robin Murray and Co and former vice chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. He was a joint winner of the 2015 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Award for fighting the legal aid cuts