Weekly round-up, 2-6 December

justice2Vara: legal profession needs to recognise it is not immune to austerity: The new justice minister, Shailesh Vara MP, called the prospect of a strike by legal aid lawyers ‘regrettable’ in an interview with Legal Futures this week.  Speaking before Monday’s announcement of a half day of action by the criminal bar, Vara said that strike action was likely to be a ‘while off’ and that he hoped there would be dialogue before then.  He added: ‘The legal profession has many people in it.  There are some people who are protesting. Clearly it’s important that the legal system continues to function effectively.  But nobody’s going to hold anyone to ransom – that’s not the way forward. There are some people out there who are taking a realistic view and recognising that their profession is not immune [to the economic pressures facing the country] and I’d like to think that some of them will be able to step forward.’  Vara said that statistics show that ‘for the past decade crime has been coming down’ and that the legal market needs to ‘sort itself out’.  ‘The legal profession is constantly changing,’ he said. ‘I remember there was a big hoo-ha when we had licensed conveyancers and solicitors said “Doom and gloom, this is the end of the high street solicitor”. The high street solicitor is still there.’  The justice minister maintained the argument that the UK has ‘one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world’ and that it still will be after the cuts.  ‘If people want to try and shoot me down, fine – I’m a big boy and I’ll stand up and fight back.’  Vara went on to praise alternative business structures for being ‘innovative’ and ‘injecting money into the system.’

Tuckers merge with Robin Murray & Co Solicitors: One of the UK’s largest criminal firms, Tuckers Solicitors, announced that it is merging with fellow legal aid firm Murray & Co this week. Each of the firms will continue to exist and, as far as possible, continue in their current forms under current management, but they will share resources to lower the overall costs of practice.  Robert Sinclair, senior partner at Tuckers, predicted earlier this year that the cuts would leave room for only 300 criminal firms. Following the announcement of the merger, Sinclair tweeted: ‘Hopefully the first of many similar mergers. Is this the future?’  Adam Makepeace, Practice Director for Tuckers said: ‘I am pleased to welcome Robin Murray & Co; they are a firm with a 25 year history and strong presence in Kent with ambition to grow and I believe that even in these very challenging times this new arrangement will allow them to expand to our mutual benefit.’  Richard Atkinson, Managing Partner of Robin Murray & Co said: ‘In these very challenging times it makes sense to seek to benefit from pooled resources. This deal allows us to maintain a high degree of independence and to directly benefit from the success of the business whilst drawing strength from being part of a major organisation with all of its strengths and capabilities.’

Big Firms Group: ‘Small firms are burying their heads in the sand’: An article in The Times this week outlined the views of the 37 legal aid firms belonging to the Big Firms Group (BFG), regarding the proposed further cuts to legal aid.  Anthony Edwards, senior partner at London-based TV Edwards, a member of the Big Firms Group, said: ‘The smaller firms are headstrong with their heads in the sand. Come what may, the Government will make cuts.’  The only way to survive cuts, according to Edwards, is consolidation – down to just 200 firms, he suggests.  ‘That is a substantial cut, but we are still running corner shops – we’ve never heard of Sainsbury’s or Tescos. It is a market lost in the dark ages,’ he said.  Edwards continued: ‘The Law Society took note of our position. We made it clear that we could provide a criminal justice service throughout the country without anybody else – the BFG firms alone could provide an efficient, acceptable level of service across the entire country. We don’t want to do that because our numbers are actually too few. But it could be done.’ Franklin Sinclair, senior partner of Tuckers, the founding member of the BFG, said: ‘My constant position is that I don’t want my future to be in the hands of the Law Society. That’s not say that they haven’t done a relatively good job, because they have. But I’d still rather have my future in my own hands. So I prefer having discussions directly between the BFG and the MoJ, rather than having the Law Society do it for more.’  Adding that he doesn’t agree with the vote of no confidence in the Law Society’s leadership, Sinclair said that Des Hudson is an ‘astute’ leader and ‘has a very difficult job.’ On whether there is a future in criminal law, Sinclair concluded: ‘A bit too early to say. But if the Government puts together a whole new landscape, with strong, large, well-run proper infrastructure that can invest in people, then definitely yes. If it carries on with a structure of 1,800 firms, 1,500 of which are tiny and will never take on trainees and with lots of them struggling financially, then no.’

SRA to investigate impact of legal aid cuts on crime firms: The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to investigate the likely impact of criminal legal aid fee cuts on the viability of law firms, reported Legal Futures this week.  Criminal solicitors have expressed their concerns that not only would the proposed 17.5% fee cuts lead to the collapse of a number of smaller firms, but also that the cost to the profession of collapses could spiral.  Ian Kelcey, a complex crime specialist and senior partner of Bristol law firm Kelcey and Hall, warned the SRA could have to pick up run-off debt when firms inevitably collapse. ‘These firms have had to cut and cut and cut and they’ve not been able to make a financial provision for closing down, making the run-off and other factors such as that.  So if they do collapse, there will be a very significant debt in respect of run-off that the SRA will have to pick up; there will be interventions and the end result will be that a whole cohort of senior practitioners will probably not be able to practice in the future.’  Mike Haley, director of supervision at the SRA confirmed that the SRA will be looking into the impacts of the criminal legal aid reforms on firms and ‘how the risks are being managed by firms’ in 2014.  ‘The exact nature of the changes to be made by the MoJ are not yet settled and so it is too early to say what the impact will be,’ said Haley.  CLSA chairman, Bill Waddington, told Legal Futures that the outlook if the proposals go through was ‘extremely bleak’, with the ‘worst case scenario’ being own-client firms disappearing.  An MoJ spokesman said: ‘There is no agenda in our legal aid reforms to close small solicitors firms.’

‘The proposed legal aid cuts are unfair and divisive’: A letter written by a junior barrister to the Telegraph was widely publicised on social media this week.  ‘I am a 28-year-old junior barrister and I live at home with my mother’, wrote Marie-Claire Amuah, who practises at criminal set 9-12 Bell Yard. ‘After a degree and a postgraduate law conversion course, I was fortunate to begin pupillage owing only £24,000. I work long hours and have little financial security.‘  Not only will the cuts ‘create a system in which only the wealthy can afford legal representation’, argued Amuah, but she is also worried about the ‘accessibility of the bar to those from diverse backgrounds.’  ‘If implemented, the government’s proposals would create an unfair and economically divisive system in which only those able to rely on private income could afford to undertake publicly funded defence work,’ wrote the young barrister.  Citing the routine earnings of junior barristers in the magistrates’ court as between £35 and £80 a day’ Amuah concluded: ‘The high standards to which barristers work ensure that cases are properly prepared irrespective of income.  This requires a commitment that will not survive if the proposed cuts to legal aid are introduced.’

VHCC fee cuts affect fair trial rights: A retired Court of Appeal judge has urged judges to stay proceedings in Very High Costs Cases (VHCCs) if the government’s proposed 30% fee cuts in such cases go ahead, according to a Law Society Gazette report this week.  Speaking at the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association annual conference, Sir Anthony Hooper said that ‘the scene is set’ for challenges that could lead to defendants not being prosecuted due to the government’s refusal to pay barristers sufficient fees to conduct the most serious criminal cases. He also said that if the government is unwilling to pay counsel adequately, defendants will go unrepresented, preventing them from having a fair trial.  ‘Once you have found that a fair trial is not possible, Article 6 requires you to stop the proceedings,’ said Hooper.  Meanwhile, the Gazette reported, the Law Society has advised solicitors to treat the withdrawal of barristers from VHCCs like any other change in legal team.

Calling all young legal aid lawyers in the North….Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) North are holding a special meeting about criminal law and the legal aid cuts on Tuesday 10 December in the Quaker Meeting House, Manchester at 6.30pm. James Parry, who gathered 100 signatures to call an EGM of the Law Society regarding its position on the criminal legal aid proposals, and Tony Cross QC, Vice Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, will be speaking at the meeting. More information here. The next YLAL London meeting will take place as normal on Wednesday 11 December, 6.30pm, at Doughty Street Chambers.

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