LAWYERS will meet Justice Secretary Michael Gove today to try to resolve the ongoing legal aid strike amid warnings the dispute will create increasing chaos.
The dispute between solicitors and the Ministry of Justice has resulted in defendants facing serious criminal allegations having to represent themselves and cells being left “chock-a-block” as cases back up.
And the problem is expected to worsen on Monday when Crown Court barristers join the strike.
It came after fees were cut by 8.75 per cent in July, following a previous 8.75 per cent cut last March.
Lawyers want the Justice Secretary to suspend the cuts and order an independent review, which they were promised before the latest reductions were imposed. Bill Waddington, the Hull-based chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, which will be at the meeting along with the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said the situation could “only get worse.”
He said: “On Monday the barristers are due to join in as well. It is going to grind to a halt, effectively.
“We have no pleasure in causing problems; what we are trying to show is a window to the future. This is what the criminal justice system will be like when firms go out of business or stop doing this kind of work.”
He said people should be concerned: “Whilst the average person might not be involved in the courts, who knows tomorrow he or she might be involved through no fault of their own. We should have a system that provides quality representation for people who are prosecuted at the hands of the state. Everything is geared towards lowering the quality to a point where people are not going to get a decent representation.”
In Hull around 25 solicitors are refusing to take on new work at the new rates, leading to delays of up to 21 hours to get legal representation, which could come from as far away as Middlesbrough.
Richard Fowler, partner in Hull-based Amber Solicitors, said court clerks were being put in a position where they were having to advise defendants about their pleas, when they could not get a lawyer. He said: “There are delays because people are not being advised to plead guilty when they should, and are being advised to plead guilty when they shouldn’t.”
He said in one recent case a youth appeared at court without legal representation - which is required in such cases - and was sentenced to a detention and training order. The case is now being recalled.
Mr Fowler said the cuts were making it impossible for businesses like his to survive, and were causing the sector to “disintegrate.” He added: “You wouldn’t get a plumber out for what we are being paid to go to a police station.”
And he said because guilty and not guilty pleas will in future attract the same rates of pay, there would then be a financial disincentive for a solicitor to get his client to plead not guilty, as such cases were often more complicated and involved more hearings.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “The changes we are making to criminal legal aid are designed to deliver value for money to taxpayers and do not impact on the availability of high quality legal advice to those who need it most.
“Although we recognise that the transition will be challenging for lawyers, these changes will put the profession on a sustainable footing for the long term. We have already pledged that an independent review looking at the impact of the new arrangements will begin in July 2016.”