Hundreds of criminal defence solicitors across the country this week signed protocols pledging that they will refuse to represent clients until they know they will receive legal aid, in protest at the ?shambolic? means-testing system implemented this week.
In a revolt that originated in the west country, most criminal law firms in Exeter, Bristol, Plymouth, Leeds, Reading, Ipswich, Reigate and Crawley have signed the protocol. Solicitors in Brighton, Carlisle, Coventry, west Kent, north-west and south-west Surrey and Sunderland have also either signed or are considering signing a similar document.
Solicitors say they will continue to fulfil their obligations under legal aid contracts and the duty solicitor scheme. However, where a client has submitted a means- testing form but has not yet received a representation order confirming legal aid cover, the solicitors will refuse to act ? spurning the Legal Services Commission (LSC)?s ?early-cover scheme?.
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) has also advised members that they are under ?no obligation to take any steps in a case? until the representation order is made. The association particularly objects to the tight timetable imposed on submitting application forms after charge, and the fact that a defendant?s application can depend on the availability and co-operation of their partner.
CLSA chairman Ian Kelcey said: ?People are taking the view around the country that we are not going to do the work until we know we are going to be paid. The early-cover provisions are farcical... I think within 14 days we may see some changes.?
He added that last week?s LSC agreement to pay solicitors for spending up to 30 minutes completing the means-testing form was ?more smoke and mirrors?.
He said: ?Filling out the form will be deemed to be proper work, but will still form part of the standard fixed fee (for example, ?170). Unless that takes you into the next band, you are not really getting paid for it. If the LSC has conceded in principle that solicitors should be paid for filling in the form, then they should be raising the standard fee.?
Stephen Nunn, a partner at Nunn Rickard in Exeter, said: ?Hundreds of lawyers, and scores if not hundreds of firms, have signed up to a version of the protocol so far. It?s our duty to stand up and say [these rules] are nonsense and unworkable ? enough is enough.?
Tony Miles, a partner at Bobbetts Mackan in Bristol, added: ?There is a huge strength of feeling in Bristol. We are very angry about the way this has been brought in.?
But Derek Hill, LSC director of the Criminal Defence Service, said there is no justification for solicitors following these protocols. ?Solicitors seem not to have understood what is on offer from the commission. Perhaps more importantly they are acting against the interests of clients by refusing to represent them promptly, particularly those clients held in custody.?
Mr Kelcey rejected this allegation. He said: ?Solicitors are acting to ensure legal aid is granted.?
Writing in this week?s Gazette, legal aid minister Vera Baird said it is fair that solicitors should be paid where extra time is spent.
By Rachel Rothwell