The second round of cuts to Legal Aid was never going to win many fans. Both the solicitors fighting claims cases and the victims bringing them will suffer. Of that, there seems no contestable doubt.
Perhaps what the government didn’t expect was for such strong resistance, to both the cuts and dual contracts, from established chambers. But that’s what they face over the coming days and weeks.
Earlier this week, the Criminal Bar Association decided that action in protest to the cuts was not the way forward. The decision surprised many as 96% of the CBA‘s members had previously voted to take action.
The Law Gazette’s article reports that when it came to the crunch, the executive committee called time on possible ‘strike’ action. Instead, they voted 34-to-11 against ‘forego[ing] work in opposition’ to either the legal aid reforms or the continuation of dual contracts.
Can the mould now be broken?
Now that the CBA has failed to stand up to government at all, the fear is that legal welfare will be decimated. At least that’s the view of Michael Mansfield QC, whose Mansfield Chambers has ‘broken rank’. The Chambers has called for an emergency meeting amongst the CBA’s membership, for which there’s already support.
The CBA has voiced empathy, acknowledging ‘the difficulty solicitors face’. Yet that they won’t actually do anything to resist the government will leave many members puzzled, if not isolated and vulnerable.
Mansfield Chambers is now questioning whether those who voted in favour of action had their hearts in it. Maybe the 96% hoped that the threat of action was enough to force the CBA’s hand, but the U-Turn stands for now.
If Mansfield Chambers gets the support of 50 members, the number it needs to call the emergency meeting they’re touting as ‘imperative’, the original threat of action may yet to turn to deed.
Is strike action a case of the law industry crying Woolf?
Mansfield’s mob is not only the breakaway bunch calling for a time-out to assess the depth of Legal Aid cuts, either.
Labour’s Dianne Abbott also warned of her fears of the Reforms’ impact in relation to availing access to aid for those who need it most. During her Fiona Woolf lecture, few were safe from criticism, including her own political party.
Dame Woolf herself addressed the need for diversity in the legal profession at the Chancery Lane venue. The former lord mayor and president of the Law Society made her business case for a broader representation in law from across society.
And this was precisely Abbott’s point. She stated that many High Street lawyers in Hackney and London, where she has her own aspirations to be mayor, are of the diverse ethnicity courts need to mirror society.
The cuts to Legal Aid not only threaten access to those solicitors for those with justifiable claims. But without those clients, lawyers’ very practices and livelihoods are also under threat.
HMCTS to shed 2½% of its workforce in one fell swoop (okay, maybe two)
And to round off today’s summary of cuts, perhaps the Courts’ Service has aspirations of leading by example, itself. With the Ministry of Justice under pressure to further trim the fat (by almost £250M), HM Courts and Tribunal Service has announced it’s shedding 400 jobs.
200 of those positions will go as a natural consequence of employees leaving or retiring. They won’t be replaced.
There’ll also be a voluntary exit scheme, which the MoJ hopes entices the other 200 excess staff to take ‘voluntary early departure’.
Earlier this week, Sir Leveson paved the way for a more efficient British criminal justice system. His keynote at the Modernising Justice Through Technology conference called for less paperwork, more digital case files.
This, unsurprisingly, was the exact reason a HMCTS spokesman gave for the job cuts. Smart move. Deflect the blow of job cuts to the Queen’s Bench and show lawyers that you’re practising what you preach? Now that’s fighting talk.