As court staff go on strike this afternoon (17 June) in protest at the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ’s) plans to cut £220m off the annual criminal legal aid budget, it is with the support of many City lawyers.
The unusual move comes as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last week claimed the MoJ’s plans could breach human rights laws and as lawyers warn that cuts made to civil legal aid earlier this year are already leading to a significant increase in pro bono requests and in areas outside of their expertise.
The strikes are not expected to cause disruption to existing cases – a HM Courts & Tribunals spokesperson said the courts are ‘aiming for business as usual’, while Hogan Lovells confirmed to Legal Business that one of its trials scheduled for today will continue regardless.
The court has put in place ‘robust contingency plans’ which prioritise delivery of its most essential services including custody cases and urgent family cases.
However, lawyers point out that with no history of striking, any kind of industrial action by court staff should be taken seriously.
John Reynolds, head of litigation at White and Case, said: ‘The people who work in the justice system are not known for being militant. When any part of the public sector not known for that goes on strike, it makes a big impact as it shows that normally mild mannered people have been pushed beyond the limit that they’re used to. It should make an impact.’
The strikes come after several hundred lawyers blocked the road outside the MoJ in central London earlier this month in protest against the cuts.
In a further blow to the MoJ’s plans, the EHRC last week (13 June) warned the Government that the proposed cuts could breach equality and human rights laws by excluding vulnerable people from access to justice, and proposed that it should run pilots for some proposals, a sentiment echoed by Legal Business guest blogger, fiscal realist and former government lawyer Carl Gardner.
Mark Hammond, chief executive of the EHRC, said: ‘The Commission recognises that the need to curb public spending applies to all public services, and agrees with the government that the taxpayer is entitled to the best possible value for money. But any budget cuts that are made to the administration of justice must preserve the basic rights of fair and equal access to the courts including for those who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.’
Lawyers say they have already seen a significant increase in requests for pro bono work since cuts to civil legal aid came into force this year under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Hogan Lovells City partner and commercial litigator Crispin Rapinet said: ‘From the pro bono point of view here in London, we’re already seeing the effects quite dramatically and since April have experienced a rise in the number of requests from members of the public for free legal service providers.’
The firm has seen a particular increase in requests for advice on family work in relation to access to children and complex divorce case, as well as immigration, according to the firm’s international pro bono manager Yasmin Waljee, who said: ‘It’s difficult for us because that’s not our area of expertise. All of those [requests] would have normally gone to legal aid firms but now people are getting increasingly desperate and looking elsewhere for help.’
Reynolds added: ‘However unfair it is, one can only take on so many cases.’
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has accused lawyers of making ‘over the top’ claims about legal aid cuts as he warned that spending on criminal cases must fall to protect NHS budgets.