More than 400 defence lawyers packed into Camden Town Hall last night to discuss the next steps to fight the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Legal Aid proposals, reports Gemma Blythe. The Justice: Closing down sale meeting (organised by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association) featured speakers including Greg Powell, past president of the LCCSA; Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society; Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association; Nigel Lithman QC of the Criminal Bar Association; and Carol Storer OBE, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group.
Greg Powell of the LCCSA said that the argument was about the resources needed to deliver justice, not about rates of pay, arguing that ‘justice is at the heart of all this’. ‘This is assisted death of justice. Grayling can be regarded as a murderer,’ he said.
Powell contended that Grayling had misinterpreted the recent Otterburn report by arguing that the profession could withstand 17.5% cuts without a drop in quality. The solicitor argued that it was wrong to interpret the fact that 75% of responses said they would make loss and go out of business as meaning 25% were in favour.
‘We have to stand together’
Greg Powell produced a file for an affray case that involved the tracing of witnesses that he billed for £470. Under the new proposals, he would get £258.71. The solicitor then revealed that his bill was done in 1978 – meaning that he was paid more in 1978 than under the current proposals.
He argued the Chris Grayling’s recent ‘climbdown’ was just as bad as the original Price Competitive Tendering (PCT) proposals. ‘What will change the minister’s mind? Direct action,’ he said. He said that the Bar could refuse instructions and shut the Crown Courts down and solicitors would act in unity with the Bar. Independently, if Bar decide to take action the LCCSA would support them, he said; adding: ‘We have to stand together to win this final fight.’
Nigel Lithman QC spoke about the resolve of the Bar to fight these cuts on top of the 40% reduction in real terms since 1997. He argued that ‘no profession has been treated that way’.
Lithman told the meeting that he had been receiving emails from people already leaving the Bar, not through choice, but being forced out. ‘We are weeks away from action, and we have told Grayling this,’ he said. ‘… Grayling is trying to starve us out. We cannot afford NOT to take action. Don’t underestimate our resolve. We will stand up to these cuts. Criminal Bar members are indicating that’s what they want to do.’
Des Hudson of the Law Society received a hostile reception when he explained Law Society’s discussions with the MOJ. He outlined the facts that informed their position.
Nigel Lithman challenged Hudson saying he was ‘stunned, shocked and disappointed’ by the Law Society’s stance saying ‘what is acceptable to you is not acceptable to your members’. Hudson responded: ‘I’m disappointed that you call it a breach of honour. They can make the cuts. The reality is Grayling would win a vote in parliament. I agree government is wrong, unfair and unreasonable.’
Michael Turner QC asked Hudson: ‘The Law Society in August entered into secret negotiations with MoJ and came out with agreement. My question to you is – what assurance can you give Law Society won’t do that again?’ Hudson responded that decisions were taken in accordance with constitution and procedures, and that any further decisions will be made in same manner.
Bill Waddington of the CLSA spoke about some of the detail of the proposals. He reckoned that the figures put forward by the MOJ were dishonest and pointed out that only three CJS areas had police station fixed fees below the proposed ‘average’ national rate of £160.45. He explained that the new litigator fees for the most serious cases, murder, would be slashed so that for a case with up to 100 pages of evidence the fee would be around £1,200. For cases with between 400 to 500 pages the fee would be capped at £5,332. He argued that it was not hard to envisage cases in the first category where the mileage claim for the lawyer going to see the client in prison is greater than the fee for giving him the advice when he or she got there. ‘New fees are quite clearly an inducement to encourage guilty pleas,’ he added.
Waddington said action was needed and that unity was key, and directing his comment to the Bar, he said: ‘We are absolutely united with you’.
There was a call for action on November 5th to tie in with the TUC’s own strike action against public sector cuts. Others felt that there were risks in lawyers linking themselves to other’s disputes.
The following resolutions were then voted upon – supported unanimously:
- This meeting deplores the continued assault on justice and the rule of law which depends on a properly funded legal aid system and the ability of all irrespective of means and status to properly defend themselves, and hold the state to account.
- This meeting believes that the MOJ is not fit for purpose as it can no longer deliver an effective and fair justice system.
- This meeting declares that the bar and solicitors working in unity will not accept the current MOJ proposals and will together campaign, lobby and protest until they are withdrawn.
- This meeting rejects any suggestion that a reduction in fees of 17.5%, or indeed any reduction, would allow the present quality legal aid service to continue to be provided.
- This meeting says No to cuts.
- The meeting declares that QASA or any amended version of it is unworkable and contrary to the interests of justice and urges all Advocates not to sign up to it in any shape or form.
- This meeting demands that the MOJ withdraw the current consultation, the proposed cuts and restrictions on access to justice.
- A quick chat with the police – or an interview? You need a lawyer - 8th December 2017
- Legal aid just got funny - 12th April 2015
- Legal Aid Team: ‘We need to make people laugh…’ - 23rd March 2015
- Grayling: ‘No-one’s coming up with alternatives’ - 16th October 2013
- Justice: Closing Down Sale – everyone must go! - 2nd October 2013
- Legal aid, prison law & nasty politics - 17th September 2013
- A victory for British Justice, but so much more to do - 9th September 2013
- Rally for legal aid: pictures and report - 31st July 2013
- Roundtable report - 10th July 2013