The Ministry of Justice is likely to face a legal challenge to criminal legal aid cuts, after practitioner groups moved to escalate their protest action by refusing all new Crown court cases from next Monday.

The moves were agreed at a meeting in London yesterday organised by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA) during the two-day walkout staged in conjunction with probation workers.

They are supported by the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association.

The LCCSA said it had received 'positive advice' from counsel 'with regard to challenging the MoJ's response to the consultation by way of judicial review'.

The action will be taken in the name of both associations.

They have set up an online fighting fund to gain support from the profession, as they say the officers of both organisations will be personally liable for costs should they lose. They suggest donations of £250 per firm and individual contributions of £20.

The Law Society said it had not been formally approached, but chief executive Desmond Hudson said the Society would be 'delighted to consider' any request for financial support. If that happens, he said, the Law Society will consider it and make the decision in accordance with its governance procedures.

The groups say proceedings will not be issued until they have sufficient funds to defray officers' personal risk, but they will be informing the MoJ that they intend to initiate a judicial review.?? Solicitors also agreed to refuse to accept work in new Crown court legal aid cases from 7 April.

Existing cases will not be disrupted.

The LCCSA said the action builds on what it considers to be the success of the bar's no-returns policy, which it believes to have been a 'significant bargaining tool' in negotiations with justice secretary Chris Grayling.

The association stressed that it will be up to individual solicitors to decide whether they wish to adopt the 'no-to-Crown court' policy.

In starting the action, LCCSA said it hoped barristers would resume their 'no-returns' policy, which was dropped as part of last week's deal with the MoJ.

LCCSA president Nicola Hill said: 'It's plain action in the courts hurts the justice secretary like nothing else.

'Unless the courts grind to a halt, Mr Grayling just doesn't listen. It's time to be radical, time to be brave. If solicitors hold their nerve and don't instruct or advocate themselves in Crown courts, it is hoped that some short-term pain will bring long-term gain to the criminal justice system.

'This is a now or never moment. Criminal lawyers have to show that defence solicitors, just as probation officers and barristers, are a vital tool in the criminal justice system. They ensure the ancient right of fair defence is maintained and are essential for the rule of law,' she said.

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