Last updated:2023-09-18
Criminal Legal Aid Lawyers Contemplate Strike Action
Practitioners are relieved that the competitive tendering (CT) proposals floated by the government in April have been defeated, but they are a long way from getting out the bunting and celebrating with unrestrained joy, as the cuts in fees the government still want will have devastating impact on their earnings. The government is proposing a cut of 17.5% to be introduced in stages, with the first of 8.75% being in February next year to be followed by a second cut in May 2015. There are dark mutterings amongst criminal law practitioners about taking strike action over the pay cut.
The fees cuts last year and the falling volumes of work are already hitting firms. According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) there has been a 10% decrease in lower crime (mainly magistrates’ court and police station work) in the last five years. Higher crime (Crown and higher court work) dropped by 12% last year. It is likely that more practices will go out of business like the firm Carney Solicitors were recently forced to. The firm mainly undertook criminal legal aid work and called in administrators in August. Until recently Carney Solicitors had employed 42 staff, but only 14 remained when it folded.
Given the falling volumes of work the Law Society, we believe, was right to try and persuade the government to manage a reduction in the numbers of firms, rather than go to CT. Also, while practitioners are reluctant to go on the record about it, there is a need to stop the abuse of the police station duty solicitor system. Stories abound of solicitors selling their duty places, and so the proposal to tender the slots using a quality and capacity assessment to allocate them would seem to make sense. A joint independent report to assess the number contracts to be awarded has also been commissioned by the Law Society and MoJ.
The MoJ is consulting on two alternatives for Crown Court fees, a modified scheme from what was originally proposed which sets a floor on fees and a second proposal made by the Bar, which simplifies the fee structure and is similar to that which was adopted by the Crown Prosecution Service last year. A large cut of 30% in very high cost cases remains in the second consultation (published earlier this month) and seems likely to happen unless a game changing strike or similar action forces the government’s hand.
At the moment practitioners are pausing and contemplating what to do next. Many remain furious about the fee cuts and argue that they will have the same impact that CT would have done- to force many out of business, albeit over a longer timescale. Civil legal aid practitioners are in a similar position, but without any concessions to draw comfort from.
The realpolitik of the situation is that a strike or similar action is the only way that any concession on pay will be made by the government. Grayling’s hands are tied by the Treasury. He has limited wiggle room within the MoJ budget. The major disruption to the criminal justice system that a strike or, co-ordinated “training day,” could cause would be difficult for the government to ignore. The problem is that solicitors’ threats of collective action, the most recent which was a boycott of new legal aid contracts in April 2007, have come to nothing in the past- but maybe this time will be different? They would not be alone as LAG understands that barristers are also contemplating taking action.
This is an extract from an article by Steve Hynes, LAG’s Director, to be published in the October edition of Legal Action journal.
Criminal legal aid solicitors are meeting in London tomorrow (1st October)-