Government legal aid cuts and the so-called ‘rehabilitation revolution’ put the public at risk, lawyers and probation officers are warning. On Monday 31st March and Tuesday 1st April (April Fool’s Day) solicitors and probation staff will be taking joint two day action in protest at the Ministry of Justice’s policies.

Criminal defence solicitors warn that under the new fee and contract arrangements people accused of a crime are in danger of not getting decent legal aid representation if they can’t afford a private lawyer. According to the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, two thirds of legal aid solicitor firms are expected to fail in the next year. Those left will not be able to provide thorough, considered advice after cuts of 17.5% and above.  Probation officers argue that outsourcing the supervision of offenders to private and voluntary organisations is taking a gamble on public protection.  They are particularly concerned about the monitoring of the most prolific offenders, those who have served sentences of under a year.

Thousands of protesting lawyers, probation officers and justice campaigners will gather in Westminster at Old Palace Yard (SW1P 3JY, opposite the Houses of Parliament) at 2pm on Tuesday 1st April. April 1st is not just April Fool’s Day it is also Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling’s birthday. A procession, bearing a Grayling effigy and balloons will proceed to the Ministry of Justice HQ to sing an alternative ‘Happy Birthday’.

The two-day joint action means courts across England and Wales will be disrupted. As well as London courts, Sheffield, Hull, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are also key areas affected. It is expected the
action will cause delays and adjournments in magistrates and crown courts; police stations will also be forced to work more slowly due to reduced solicitor staffing.

Nicola Hill, President of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association said,

What’s happening to probation and criminal legal aid belongs to the same sorry story. That’s why criminal defence solicitors are standing by colleagues in probation. As the government dismantles the criminal justice  system, risks are being taken which threaten public safety and the right to a fair defence.

The MOJ is taking a gamble on outsourcing the supervision of the most persistent offenders on release from short-term prison sentences. Meanwhile as the Justice Secretary scrimps on legal aid, the risk of the innocent going to jail is set to become a nightmarish reality. Miscarriages of justice for ordinary people will increase because they can’t get a decent lawyer.

The vast majority of the public may kid themselves this doesn’t affect them.  But what if they’re accused of a serious driving offence or if their teenage child is accused of a drugs offence in school or university? Then they’ll care, then they’ll want fair representation. And what if you know a prisoner has been released from jail and needs consistent and effective monitoring but isn’t getting it from a massive security firm?

It’s about time the Justice Secretary puts a proper value on public protection and shows that he understands that both criminal defence solicitors and probation officers are a vital tool in that process.

Ian Lawrence, General Secretary for NAPO, the Trade Union for Probation and Family Court Staff, who are still in a formal dispute over the government privatisation plans said,

The government plans to outsource 70% of the probation service are untried and untested. It is a dangerous social experiment that we believe will lead to a reduction in rehabilitation and fragmented risk management, placing the public at risk. This government’s attack on the justice system has already led to families being disadvantaged from cuts to civil legal aid. Now we are seeing criminal legal aid being massively reduced and the dismantling of one of the best performing public services in the country.

These reforms are ideologically driven and being pushed by a political timetable. If the Secretary of State really believes in these reforms then we ask him to pause and to run pilots that can be independently evaluated to evidence that they work. However, he refuses to do this and is pushing them through ahead of the general election. It will cost the public in terms of both safety and taxpayers’ money.

Matt Foot of the Justice Alliance added,

This is the first day in history when solicitors and probation have taken joint action not to work the courts. They are united against a Minister of Justice who is listening to no-one, not even government funded reports. He is obsessed with private companies and is being dangerous and foolish with justice. All but the rich will suffer - which is why we are united and determined
to stop him.

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