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Lawyers threaten to paralyse Britain’s courts with ‘strike’ action

Barristers withdraw labour to attend meetings in protest against changes to legal aid

By Alex Varley-Winter and Susan Cooke

“A cheap advocate will be incentivised to have people plead guilty whether they are or not” – Barrister999

Lawyers are gearing up to protest about reforms to legal aid by staging “strikes” nationwide that threaten chaos in courts in England and Wales.

Meetings are being planned for barristers and solicitors that will have the effect of making them withdraw their labour and so disrupt court hearings. They will be similar to unions’ “mandatory meetings” in workplaces, which is a preliminary form of industrial action.

Growing anger among lawyers over continuing cuts to legal aid raises the prospect of barristers on the barricades outside courts. They and their sister profession, solicitors, are even angrier about government plans to introduce a system of tendering for contracts to provide services under legal aid.

Barristers in England’s northern circuit of the Bar made themselves absent from court hearings last week by attending “essential” meetings. Organisers insist, however, that it was not “industrial action”.

But other circuits of the Bar are calling similar meetings for barristers all over the country.

The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) has called a protest meeting in London entitled “Justice for Sale” scheduled to take place during court hours at 2pm on May 22.

Michael Turner, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), is calling on barristers in his organisation to attend the meeting “in your droves”.

Up to 1,100 lawyers will attend the meeting at Friends Meeting House opposite Euston railway station.

Representatives from the Law Society, Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group, London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association as well as the CLSA and CBA are due to address the meeting to talk about the Ministry of Justice’s “plans to introduce price-competitive tendering for criminal-defence services.”

The Solicitors Regulation Authority will also reward lawyers who attend the meeting with three Continued Professional Development points. These help to demonstrate that lawyers have kept abreast of the latest legal developments.

Lawyers say that the tendering proposals for legal aid overseen by Chris Grayling, justice secretary, will see contracts go to lowest-price bidders motivated by volume rather than the interests of justice.

Turner warned that the law is being sold off to “big, commercial operators” such as Tesco. In an uncompromising message to barristers in the CBA, he said: “In the first place, we must unite not only amongst ourselves but with our sister profession. Unity is strength.”

His association is advising its members to lobby MPs and warn: “We are ready to take direct action.”

He warns that lawyers will be under pressure not to take up cases that challenge the authorities, saying: “It will be in the interests of their employers to make sure the government still likes them when the contract is renewed.”

One CLSA member who is planning to attend the meeting on May 22 told Exaro that, although he does not regard it as “direct action”, he believes lawyers should go to the gathering to register their concerns.

“This is something basic that strikes to the heart of the justice system.”

The Ministry of Justice said in a statement: “The government is consulting on proposals to reform legal aid in criminal law, to increase public confidence and encourage efficiency. We encourage lawyers to talk to us about the plans and respond to the consultation, rather than taking disruptive action.”

One senior in-house advocate in the East Midlands began blogging this month in opposition to the reforms, using the pseudonym “Barrister999”.

On the reforms, he writes: “This is not about saving money at all. It is about shutting down access to justice.”

Speaking to Exaro, which is protecting the barrister’s identity, he said that the reforms raised a “constitutional” issue. “The idea that the state can require individuals to have a particular lawyer with no choice is a significant change.

“The government is not interested in securing quality representation. It only aims for cheap representation. A cheap advocate will be incentivised to have people plead guilty whether they are or not.”

He had “absolutely no doubt” that innocent people would be convicted because they will not receive a fair hearing.

He claimed that the public is being fed misleading stories about “fat-cat lawyers” on legal aid.

The protests come amid turmoil at the Crown Prosecution Service, where cuts have sparked a fresh round of redundancies.

Update 17 May 2013: MPs on the House of Commons justice committee are to launch an investigation into government plans for legal aid.

Westminster sources told Exaro that the committee is poised to announce the inquiry on Tuesday.

MPs plan to examine proposals to put out to tender contracts to provide services under legal aid. They are worried that defendants on legal aid will lose the right to choose their lawyer.

Elfyn Llwyd, a Plaid Cymru MP on the justice committee and a barrister, has tabled an Early Day Motion, calling for the reforms to be stopped. The motion is backed by 59 MPs.

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