Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been forced to back down on his original plans to end a client’s right to the solicitor of their choice after a wave of opposition.
However the Tories are still determined to slash £220 million from the legal aid budget and propose cuts in lawyers’ fees of up to 30 percent. This would drive many firms out of business and force barristers to give up their practices.
Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, spoke at the meeting. He pointed out that Tooks Chambers was forced to close this month due to cuts in fees for legal aid work over the past few years. Tooks was founded by radical lawyer Michael Mansfield QC in the wake of the 1984/85 miners’ strike.
Bill Waddington from the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association argued there is a clear policy decision written in black and white in Grayling’s consultation document. It is to induce lawyers to persuade clients facing criminal proceedings to plead guilty regardless of the strength of the evidence against them. Such a policy is dishonest, unfair and unprincipled.
Meanwhile the attacks on funding for prison law will mean that many people already inside jail will be simply abandoned without any hope of representation.
The anger at these proposals is not about fat cat lawyers protecting their high salaries. The biggest issue is about the rights of ordinary people to representation in the courts.
The majority of legal aid lawyers earn less than £40,000 a year from which deductions such as VAT and chambers fees must be made.
There was a real mood of anger in the meeting that reflected the unity against these proposals among solicitors and barristers.
A resolution was passed declaring the Ministry of Justice “not fit or purpose” and reaffirming a commitment to oppose all cuts. A number of speakers from the floor called for a strike on the 5 November to coincide with an anti-austerity day of action.
Although not carried there was an overwhelming consensus that some form of united direct action should be organised, including if necessary the withdrawal of labour.