It was difficult to know where to begin as I sat down to write this. Such a great deal has happened since I wrote my last report for the Advocate’s January issue. And now we find ourselves in the last-chance saloon.
It started on 6 January with a demonstration outside Westminster magistrates’ court and training at the Islington assembly rooms. The day was organised in double-quick time over the Christmas break and the fact that it was so well supported was testament to the strength of feeling amongst solicitors. It also served to demonstrate to Grayling that both sides of the profession were united. The publication of the Oxford Economics report followed – as did its swift dismissal by the Ministry of Justice.
The theme of unity continued with the formation of the National Justice Committee, which has since met weekly, and consists of representatives from the LCCSA, CLSA, LAPG, Justice Alliance, BFG, CBA and the Circuit leaders. The Bar Council, The Law Society and CILEX attend as observers.
Despite frequent requests to the Lord Chancellor to meet us as a group, he has continued to maintain his divide-and-rule approach and will not see us together. When he did finally meet with solicitors in February, he made it clear that cuts and a two-tier system were coming and that we could not have access to the reports from the external consultants, Otterburn Legal Consulting, or from KPMG, in advance of the MoJ response. It is not entirely clear therefore why he met with us as it certainly was not to engage.
In my January report, I mentioned writing to Simon Hughes. I wrote again when he did not respond. He has still not responded. He has let us down spectacularly when you bear in mind that he was completely opposed to the cuts and reforms before taking up his new role. I hear he says all the decisions had been made by the time he arrived and that he was powerless to help. If that is right, why did the MoJ take so long to publish its response?
Let’s hope that the opposition day debate that we have been promised bears more fruit. When the date is known, we must take this opportunity to lobby our MPs. A number of visits from solicitors and support staff worried about their jobs might focus the mind, especially for MPs in marginal seats such as Hendon.
And that brings me to the government response itself. It is, quite simply, devastating, both to the profession and to our clients. I cannot see how firms who run on an average profit of 5% (as set out in Otterburn, a document supposedly relied on by the Lord Chancellor) will be able to sustain a cut of 8.75% from 20 March – and yet another cut next summer.
Our opposition to these cuts was made known far and wide on 7 March (a friend’s mother saw it on television in Australia). What an amazing day! Thank you for attending the rally and march and giving voice to our message. One powerful speaker followed another, lawyers, politicians, musicians, victims and clients. I was at the back of the march and could see it snaking ahead of me away impressively into the distance. Two thousand lawyers made their views known in no uncertain terms outside the MoJ as our Grayling puppet went inside and delivered a copy of the Magna Carta.
Isn’t it ironic that Grayling’s imposition of these cuts, tearing up the rule of law and right to a fair defence, so nearly coincides with the anniversary of the Magna Carta, which enshrined these rights 800 years ago?
Thank you to all those who worked incredibly hard to make the rally, march and training such a huge success. It is an honour to be part of such a dedicated group of people.
It continues to be a real privilege to represent the profession at this time and I have had fantastic opportunities to get our message across various media. In the build-up to 7 March, this started with an appearance on Radio 4’s Law in Action with Joshua Rozenberg. I was on alongside David Green who heads up the Serious Fraud Office. We both had terrible colds and spent the first 10 minutes or so learning, through a complicated system of lights and recordings, when it was ok to cough, sneeze or blow our noses. I offered him my cough medicine but he did not want to share.
This was followed by a recorded piece for BBC Breakfast on the day of the rally. Together with a Radio 5 Live piece in my dressing gown at 6.16am (to be precise), this got our message out bright and early on the 7th. Once at the rally, I spoke to camera crews ranging from the BBC news channel to Al Jazeera, via Sky, and a chap from Turkey who was making a documentary. I finished the day on BBC Radio London with Eddie Nestor (a favourite in our car) but also unfortunately with a Tory MP whose contribution was to say that it did not matter that the barristers were refusing to work because all the solicitor advocates were working instead. “Oh no, they are not,” I said.
The imagery of the day, Lady Justice (who again braved the cold), the Grayling puppet, the jazz band, wigs and gowns, placards and banners meant that the press coverage both in print and online was also widespread. Even The Daily Mail was sympathetic and we got a mention in the Radio Times. Of course, we still have our detractors but we are winning over the press – and certain areas of the press – in a way we could never have imagined. The media are finally realising that this is not about our jobs but a direct assault on justice.
Along with CLSA, the LCCSA organised a meeting of solicitors in Manchester on 19 March. Seven hundred and twenty one legal aid contracts were represented. It was agreed that we would join with the probation officers' protests on 31 March and 1 April (Grayling's birthday) and also work to rule and withdraw goodwill. Other action remained very much open but required further time to organise.
Now really is the moment to stand up and fight: short-term pain may prevent long-term extinction. It is not the time to be timid, but to be brave. If our courage fails, I fear that the last-chance saloon will empty very quickly.
- Nicola Hill, Kinglsey Napley, President LCCSA