The two main organisations representing criminal defence solicitors have urged their members to join the trade union Unite so as to “exercise their voices collectively”.
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) and London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) said they needed more than the Law Society could provide to fight the crisis in legal aid.
The Law Society and practitioner groups cannot call for solicitors to take collective action as this could be in breach of competition law, but one of the advantages the two groups said being members of Unite would bring was its ability to “coordinate industrial action if the membership, us, vote for it”.
In a joint statement, the committees of the CLSA and LCCSA said those working in legal aid “have not yet had a major union fighting for their pay and conditions on a large scale and in a way that is both professional and coordinated”, unlike others in the welfare state.
“The committees believe that only the collective force of our numbers can make a critical difference in the fight for legal aid, for our professional futures and for the fair trial rights of our clients…
“The Law Society does important lobbying work and takes legal challenges to block unlawful decision making. The professional membership bodies and individual firms have been sounding the alarm for years about the devastating effect that cuts and lack of investment have had on the justice system.
“In spite of these efforts, pressures on legal workers have increased whilst pay rates have stagnated or gone backwards. Recruitment, retention and the mental and physical health of lawyers and legal workers are at an all-time low. This situation cannot continue.”
The committees said the “fight for access to justice” and the wellbeing of all “who strive to deliver it” was too important not to take to the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid AGency.
“For this reason, the committees of the LCCSA and CLSA agreed to encourage firms to recognise and members to join unite the union so as to strengthen the collective voice and unity.”
They said the decision to recommend Unite came after months of consultation with trade unions. Unite was the best option because not only is it the largest trade union in the country, but it also already has an established legal branch “with funds to commit to our cause”, with organisers and campaign tools “to help us speak directly to the government”.
“Unite is focused on large scale wins and is hungry to succeed in the legal sector, specifically for legal aid workers,” the statement went on.