Criminal defence lawyers attending a meeting with the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling this week report he “showed no sign of movement” on proposals to slash fees.
Meanwhile, with just days to go before the deadline, defence solicitors campaigning for a vote of no confidence in the Law Society’s leadership over its handling of the legal aid reform negotiations have still not been given a date for a Special General Meeting.
The Law Society has until 18 November to set a date for a special general meeting after solicitors handed in a 118–signature petition into Chancery Lane – 100 signatures are required to trigger an SGM, which must be held between six and ten weeks from requisition. If the motion of no confidence is passed, or if 20 members demand it, then the matter will go to a postal ballot.
Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, has staunchly defended its tactics, arguing that engagement was a more productive approach than opposition and had already yielded results such as ministers dropping plans to remove client choice or introduce price competitive tendering.
However, James Parry, partner at Liverpool firm Parry Welch Lacey, the solicitor-advocate leading the campaign for a no confidence vote, said: ‘The Law Society has actively engaged with the Lord Chancellor and has been quoted as saying it has entered into an agreement. They say they don’t agree with the cuts and have not agreed with the cuts, but what have they agreed to?
‘[If the vote of no confidence goes through,] opinions are mixed about what would happen. I think it would be very difficult for the leadership to continue and the moral thing to do would be to resign.’
Parry, who attended the meeting with Grayling this week along with the Law Society and other criminal law practitioners, said: ‘There is no sign of movement from the Lord Chancellor although he says he’s listening.
‘He maintains that he needs to make the cuts, but I don’t think there’s a legal case or political necessity for them.’
If the fee cuts do go through, however, a legal challenge by means of a judicial review incorporating human rights arguments could be the next step.
Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to legal assistance if accused of a crime, regardless of the ability to pay.
Parry said he believes this right is ‘being eroded in practice’.
He said the cuts in duty solicitor fees would make the majority of that work unviable, meaning firms would go out of business ‘fairly quickly’. While they were in their ‘death throes’ and making staff redundant, they would be unable to make the investment required to compete for new work.
Parry predicts two-thirds of criminal law firms would go out of business. This would obviously restrict client choice.
He said the cuts were worse than the ‘headline fee cut of 17.5%’. There will be a flat fee of £321 for magistrates’ court trials and guilty pleas – everything except police station work – although trials can last for more than a day.
Parry said: ‘At the moment I can reassure the client that I will make no more money by advising them to plead guilty, I’m saying it because I think it is the best thing to do. But in future, I won’t be able to say this. The client may then question whether I want them to plead guilty because it will make me more money.
‘That goes a long way to destroying the relationship between lawyer and client.’
‘These cuts will result in a two-tier defence system. If you are rich then you will be all right. If you are a person of moderate means then you may receive a poor service.’
The fee for police station work varies from area to area but is about £200, and the government is abolishing the ‘escape clause’ which allows solicitors to claim extra for lengthy police interviews where the hourly rates would amount to triple the fee.
Parry said: ‘It’s becoming increasingly difficult. When LASPO came in they removed the section that required the Lord Chancellor to provide a sustainable service. We are now seeing a concerted attack on the criminal defence service.’
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