Criminal legal aid solicitors could decline to take on poorly remunerated cases such as burglary until the government significantly improves its reform package.
The idea was mooted at a training session organised by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and Criminal Law Solicitors Association yesterday, where dozens of solicitors signalled their appetite to join the criminal bar in escalating action.
After hearing from practitioner groups and representative bodies on why the government’s proposed £135m package was not good enough, questions from the floor immediately turned to action.
One lawyer said: ‘We’re at the point of last chance saloon. Unless we do something, we’re not going to be taken seriously.’
On what solicitors are asking for, LCCSA president Hesham Puri said the starting point was a 15% uplift. However, one practitioner said solicitors should demand 25%, given they have already suffered a 8.75% cut. ‘With inflation kicking in, the starting point for a 15% increase is not an increase. It’s zero. Possibly less. Bearing that in mind, we have to start higher,’ the solicitor said to loud applause.
‘If this is going to be the end of legal aid, we have to fight. The way we fight is not by having another training day, another meeting. We have got to withdraw our labour… Women didn’t win the vote by having training days,’ declared another solicitor, who suggested picket lines outside courts.
Law Society guidance states that collective action by the profession or practitioner groups could breach competition law. One solicitor suggested firms could decline to do burglary work, which is poorly paid.
The Law Society’s head of justice Richard Miller replied: ‘If as a business you take the view that burglary cases are simply not viable, that’s absolutely fine. That’s your right as economic entities to do that.’
CLSA chair Daniel Bonich said practitioner groups could not tell members to strike. But if you tell us you’re not doing burglary cases – whatever you tell us you’re prepared to do, we will deliver the message. Tell us what the message is, what is the “or else”.’
On strike action, Miller said forming a union was not the right answer: ‘Trade unions are about employment rights. You are the employers – the firms. Your employees are your staff. It’s not the same scenario as taking action against the government.’
Criminal Bar Association chair Jo Sidhu QC said representative bodies could not go into negotiations with barristers demanding a 25% uplift and solicitors demanding 15%, warning that one side would get undercut.
As the meeting drew to a close, one solicitor concluded a ‘real desire’ to take action but said there was ‘confusion about what the action should be and what the solicitor profession wants it to be’. She suggested surveying members on what they are prepared to do.
Justice minister James Cartlidge will be grilled about the proposals by the House of Commons justice select committee tomorrow immediately after Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce gives evidence on why the reforms are not enough to save the sector.
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