Criminal defence solicitors across the country staged wildcat strikes to protest against legal aid reforms this week, as momentum gathered for more radical action on a national scale next month ? despite a warning from the Law Society that strikes could breach competition law.
Lawyers also accused the government of being ?subversive? after a letter came to light from the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) offering ?intelligence about the defence community? to local criminal justice boards in relation to the strikes.
Eleven areas took part in strike action on Monday and Tuesday this week, including Cardiff, Portsmouth, Southampton, Bury and Peterborough. It is understood that only duty solicitors acted in the police station and magistrates? court, with other solicitors refusing to provide back-up. The strikes were in protest at the means-testing system for criminal defence work and Lord Carter?s reforms.
There was strong support for national strike action in January ? which would also involve duty solicitors refusing to act ? at a meeting of up to 400 criminal defence solicitors held last week by the newly formed Criminal Defence Solicitors Union (CDSU). However, there were no solicitors present from some large conurbations including Leeds and Manchester, and there appeared to be little turnout from the larger criminal defence firms.
A five-person negotiating team chaired by Southampton solicitor Roger Peach was elected at the meeting, and Cardiff solicitor Simon Mumford met with two senior Legal Services Commission (LSC) directors last week on the CDSU?s behalf.
However, Law Society Representation has issued guidance warning that collective action by solicitors is likely to breach competition law and could lead to an Office of Fair Trading investigation. Such action could breach legal aid contracts, it said.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said solicitors felt ?exploited? by pay freezes but he could ?in no way condone? strike action. Mr Peach said the legal position was not clear-cut, and solicitors felt there was ?nothing to lose?.
Solicitors were also angered by the letter to criminal justice boards from the DCA?s head of legal aid strategy Amanda Finlay. She warned solicitors were planning strikes and advised that ?the LSC will be able to provide intelligence about the defence community... we will be in touch with areas separately about arrangements for monitoring and reporting during any period of disruptive action.?
Mr Mumford said the letter was ?appalling and subversive?. A joint DCA/LSC statement said ?intelligence? means ?no more than information about what is actually happening or what people say publicly is going to happen.?