Tensions between the bodies representing criminal law solicitors and barristers reached breaking point yesterday after the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) was accused of showing a lack of courage and acting unworthily.
As solicitors across the country began to strike in protest at the 8.75% litigators’ fee cut imposed from 1 July, the CBA executive decided to hold a ballot of members on whether to support them – even though only a few weeks ago it ran a survey that showed overwhelming support among members to take action with a ‘no returns’ policy, and then decided against calling for it.
The ballot asks: “In support of solicitors, do you wish to go back to ‘no returns’ and also refuse all new work with a representation order dated from 1 July 2015 until such time as solicitors decide not to take further action in respect of that cut?”
The solicitors who are taking action – and it appears to be widespread – are complying with their contractual obligations to provide police station duty cover, but otherwise refusing to accept own-client police station cases and not applying for any new representation orders in the magistrates’ court.
A joint statement from Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, and Jon Black, chairman of the London Criminal Court Solicitors Association, said that while they welcomed the ballot, they were “dismayed that this was felt necessary in view of the overwhelming mandate for no returns expressed in the previous vote”.
They said: “Our concern is that the executive appears to have been dragged yelling and screaming to announce this but only under membership pressure so they have done the next best thing which is to ignore the previous vote and put action off for two weeks.
“This fails to help solicitors who are taking action all over the country now. It is not a courageous tactic and unworthy of the Bar membership who are in fact voting ‘with their feet’ and joining action in many local areas.
“The delay will no doubt be accompanied by a drip by drip covert if not overt campaign to ensure the Bar’s confidence in the solicitors’ action is undermined by picking holes in it here and there. There have been such reports of this ineffective tactic in places where the Bar disregarded the leadership and joined with the local solicitors.”
“So we urge all barristers to by all means vote in due course but to NOW take action following the example of other chambers across the country. We will win this.”
Meanwhile, Law Society president Andrew Caplen issued a statement to explain why Chancery Lane is sitting on the sidelines while the action is being taken. He said: “We have considerable sympathy with the position of solicitors facing the latest round of criminal legal aid cuts. We also understand the significant anger that exists over the damaging effects of government policy on access to justice and on dedicated professionals and small businesses who have had no increases to legal aid fees since 1992 and have faced significant cuts.
“It is the longstanding position of the society that it cannot support, organise or lead collective action. The society is not a trade union and it cannot call its members out on strike or encourage them to take collective action. It would be unlawful under the Competition Act for us to call for, organise or lead collective action…
“It must be for individual firms to make these decisions based on their own individual circumstances. In making them, they must consider very carefully, not only their legal obligations under their current legal aid contracts and under competition law, but also their professional obligations under the SRA Code of Conduct to clients and to the justice system.”