Criminal law solicitors are gearing up for a national strike over legal aid reforms in a rebellion that has begun in south Wales, the Gazette learned this week.
Lawyers in Gwent passed a motion last week proposing industrial action by criminal defence solicitors on a national basis. It will be voted on by the Cardiff Law Society this week, and is then likely to be put to solicitors throughout England.
The proposal is a combined protest over Lord Carter?s legal aid reforms, difficulties with the introduction of means testing this month, and conditional cautioning by the Crown Prosecution Service.
Under the Gwent proposal, all criminal defence solicitors would close their offices on 4 and 5 December, and for a further five days in January. They would refuse to represent defendants at police stations, and would not provide duty solicitor cover. Those taking part in the action would not represent clients in the magistrates? courts or Crown Court ? even if the defendant has been granted legal aid ? and the action would include ?physical withdrawal of briefs held by counsel? in the Crown Court.
Nick Lloyd, a partner at Lloyd & Rowe in Cardiff, said: ?Criminal practices are shutting down on a daily basis because of means testing and the Draconian Carter proposals. If we wait until next April, there will be nothing left. Our objective is to bring the criminal justice system to a stop. We calculate that in Cardiff 70% of the solicitors will be gone from next April, so what have we got to lose??
Under the proposal, if any duty solicitor is disqualified or struck off as a result of the action, all solicitors taking part would resign. Any wasted costs orders made against firms would ?not be paid? and would be ?dealt with as part of the negotiations with the government or Legal Services Commission (LSC)?.
A plan for a more moderate day of action has already been passed by Cardiff Law Society. Only duty solicitors will provide police station representation, and they will work ?strictly to rule?.
Cardiff Law Society president Trudy McBride said the growing support for further measures meant the proposal for industrial action would be put to the vote. She said: ?There is a big groundswell of people in this area who believe there should be a complete withdrawal of services, for the government to see how important we are. The feeling is that we really need to do something.?
Cardiff solicitor Roy Morgan, chairman of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said he had ?misgivings? about leaving clients in custody without representation, but added: ?I think it might go that way unless something happens soon. I can see this developing, because solicitors just can?t take any more.?
Plymouth solicitor Stephen Walker said lawyers in the area were ?robust and pretty fed up?, and there was likely to be support for a national day of action. Southampton solicitor Roger Peach said local solicitors would be holding a meeting this week, and industrial action is ?one option we will be discussing?. Torquay solicitor Stephen Nunn said there was ?quite an element of support for going further than we have so far?, and the Gwent proposal was likely to be supported ?either in total or in bits?.
Ian Kelcey, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said he was ?not surprised? that solicitors are getting ?very, very angry.?
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: ?No solicitor easily contemplates such action, but the unnecessarily complex [means-testing] system is causing significant disruption, and solicitors are naturally concerned that they will find themselves acting for clients with no guarantee of payment. We have for some time been pressing the commission to amend the scheme and we hope that an announcement will be made soon that will reassure solicitors on the ground and avoid any action that no one wants to see.?
However, Law Society Regulation Board chairman Peter Williamson said the proposals could put solicitors ?in breach of fundamental duties?. He said: ?Solicitors have the right to make their views known, but we urge them to identify ways of making their arguments that would not damage the interests of their clients and the administration of justice.?
In a joint statement by the LSC and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, a spokesman said the proposed action is ?contrary to the best interests of defendants, including some of the most vulnerable people in society?. He added that lawyers? views had been listened to and the means-testing scheme ? which is less bureaucratic than the old means test ? was ?under active review?.