Solicitors and Barristers from across the country today were refusing to attend court hearings as part of a day of action they have dubbed, Grayling Day. LAG attended the rally outside parliament and the march to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Over a thousand lawyers took part in the London event. They heard speeches from leading lawyers and clients, fearful that the cuts in fees and other changes to legal aid planned by the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, are “destroying the right to access to justice.”
Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Lord Chancellor, accused Grayling of being the “most legally illiterate Lord Chancellor in over a thousand years.” Speakers also included Nigel Lithman, the leader of the Criminal Bar Association, who said that it was “exceptional times” which had forced lawyers, “to take to the streets and to close the courts.” Laura Janes from the Howard League, who is also a board member of LAG, referring to the proposed changes to judicial review, said that the government “wishes to silence civil society” and pledged that, “We will stand up for justice and the rule of law.”
Janis Sharp, gave one of the outstanding speeches of the day, telling the crowd that “this is not a party political issue, the cuts started in 1997.” Sharp is the mother of Gary McKinnon, who has Asperger’s syndrome. In a ten year legal battle he successfully fought attempts to extradite him to the US for hacking Nasa and Pentagon computer systems. Sharp believes without legal aid Gary “would not be here.”
In his speech the solicitor Paul Harrison referred to the Otterburn report on the criminal defence market. The report was jointly commissioned by the Law Society and the MoJ. Harrison pointed out that the report says that firms are on average making only a 5% profit from criminal legal aid and so will not be able to withstand the cuts proposed by the Government.
The Otterburn report, which was published at the same time as the government’s proposals on criminal legal aid last week (27th Feb), sets out in stark detail the likely impact of the cuts on solicitor’s firms. The report’s authors Nigel Otterburn and Vicky Ling believe that the finances of the 1500 or, so criminal firms are “fragile” and that many are unlikely to be able to withstand the 8.75% cut due to take place next month. They say that especially in London and the South East, the total cut of 17.5% for police station and magistrates court work is in fact much higher.
It has been clear for some time that due to falling volumes of work caused by reduced crime rates and decisions not to prosecute, some consolidation in the criminal defence services market is inevitable. LAG believes though, the government’s strategy of introducing fee cuts, followed by dramatic reductions in the number of police station duty contracts, the way in which most criminal solicitor practices build their businesses, risks a disastrous collapse in criminal defence services. Yes, change is inevitable, but a more considered approach is needed, as the Otterburn report also argues.
In some ways the Bar is in a worse position than solicitors, facing as they do a reduction of 30% in fees for the most complex cases. However, in recent weeks self employed barristers have shown that they do have more weapons at their disposal than their solicitor colleagues. Already the courts are under pressure, due to the criminal bar’s refusal to accept fee cuts in the very high cost cases. Nigel Lithman also confirmed today that they will continue not to undertake returns.
There is a widespread belief amongst the Bar that the refusal to take returns, cases in which an advocate originally assigned to a case is unavailable, will gradually clog-up the courts system. The question is who will blink first in this stand-off over the criminal legal aid, criminal defence lawyers or, their bete noire, Grayling?