On Monday and Tuesday next week I shall not be in court. Not because I’m going on holiday, holidays being a thing of the past at the legally aided criminal bar. Not because the CBA has called for a strike, they haven’t for reasons which I will explore below. Rather, because on the 31st March and 1st April the solicitors are stepping up their fight in opposition to the proposed cuts to legal aid which will not only decimate the solicitors profession, but in a very real sense lead to a denial of access to justice for all but the wealthy.
On 31st March and 1st April solicitors along with probation officers will be giving voice to their opposition to the governments plans to change our criminal justice landscape. I feel it is not merely important but essential that my voice joins theirs.
Some may wonder why I would not attend court and risk professional conduct censure, given I am neither a solicitor nor a probation officer. The answer is simple. On many different levels, their fight is my fight. I am a barrister. I care about access to justice, I care that it not simply be the preserve of the wealthy. I believe that the job I do is an important one and that if these cuts get implemented, all of that stands at peril.
For those who may be unaware the government has produced a document entitled “Transforming Legal Aid, the Next Steps”. In it, it proposes a number of reforms which deal with how legal aid is to be provided in the criminal justice system. Previously, I have blogged about the cuts to barristers fees. Those cuts are callous, swingeing and unnecessary. The CBA and others have attempted to show the Ministry of Justice why they are not needed and where else savings can be met. The Ministry is not interested.
The cuts also impact on the solicitors profession. Too many barristers, I fear, have not yet appreciated the extent or the gravity of the cuts affecting solicitors. If they did, they might understand exactly why the solicitors fight is our fight.
Alongside the ‘Next Steps’ proposals, the Otterburn and KPMG reports were published. Theses papers surveyed the solicitors profession and purport to provide the evidential basis upon which the ‘Next Steps’ document is predicated. They show that the average profitability for solicitors firms doing criminal legal aid work is 5.5%. The governments response? To introduce 8.5% cuts to all criminal legally aided solicitors fees from last Thursday and another 8.5% next year. What business can hope to survive these cuts, introduced with just 3 weeks notice. In this week alone, the multi office criminal aid practice of Meldrums has gone into liquidation, the Bath firm of Stone King have announced they are to stop doing criminal legal aid work and I know of 2 other firms who have sent redundancy emails out to all their criminal solicitors. Who can blame them? How can firms be expected to limp on bearing cuts which will make daily practice unprofitable.
It is not simply cuts which is proposed. Two tier contracts are to be introduced. This will mean solicitors can bid for contracts to deal with ‘own-client’ work, and separately for duty contract work. Currently, there are 1800 contracts for the provision of legal services. This is to drop to 525 for duty work. For those firms that manage to limp on despite the 8.5% cuts introduced this year, they face the very real prospect of being denied duty contracts next year. It is expected that the number of high street solicitors firms will be reduced by over a 1000. The unlimited number of duty contracts was provided as a sop to those who complained that removing client choice was wrong. Yes, all firms can now do own-client work but what is client choice if firms have gone under, and there is nowhere for clients to exercise that choice.
In light of these cuts, it is perhaps unsurprising that at a meeting in Manchester last week, solicitors voted to withdraw from providing legal services on the 31st and 1st and instead attend ‘training days’. The stance the CBA is taking is understandable. It supports the solicitors. It recognises that their fight is the CBA’s fight. It though, is mid consultation as to what steps it should next take, to defeat the government proposals. It is hard for them to call for an all out strike whilst it is still mid its own consultation period.
I, however, do not need a consultation period to know my own mind. I recognise that even if the CBA is successful in defeating the cuts which will affect barristers, if the solicitor profession is decimated, it wont matter what my fee levels are. I wont be getting any work as there will be no solicitors to brief me. The legal environment will be made up of Tescolaw, Stobbarts and the like, with inhouse paralegals, in house advocates, sausage factory provision of legal services and with only the most complex cases, upon which they can not make a profit, being briefed out to the bar. In that brave new world, I do not want to be sat at the desk in my new job, for I doubt I could afford to remain a barrister, wondering why I did not do more, fight harder, for a fair system of justice I believe passionately in. I applaud the CBA stance as articulated in this week’s Monday Message where it was said,
“ As a very minimum, I have no doubt that the Criminal Bar will not be prepared to take up any work on the 31st March/1st April in place of our solicitor colleagues.“
For me though, that is not enough. The solicitors fight is my fight and that is why I wont be in court on Monday and Tuesday next week.