Resentment against the Government’s final package of legal aid cuts has reached new heights as hundreds of criminal barristers and lawyers today (7 March) staged a major protest outside Westminster, their second protest this year, with a further call made for Law Society president Nicholas Fluck and chief executive Desmond Hudson to resign.
With protestors dressed in wigs and black gowns refusing to attend court, trials across England and Wales have faced disruption after the final package of legal aid reforms unveiled last Thursday (27 February) by justice secretary Chris Grayling revealed little in the way of compromise.
The Ministry of Justice said the reforms, which it hopes will slice more than £200m off the criminal legal aid budget, will include a reduction in barristers’ fees of around an average of 6%, under the advocates graduated fees scheme, which will cover 99% of crown court cases.
Solicitors’ fees will face reduction in a ‘phased manner’, with rates for new cases being slashed by 8.75% from 20 March as part of an initial reduction, while a second 8.75% cut will follow next year.
On Tuesday (4 March), the Criminal Bar Association’s chairman Nigel Lithman QC confirmed that a day of action would take place today following an executive meeting, and Lithman added that many barristers would also withdraw their goodwill from the justice system by refusing to appear in court on each other’s cases, essentially suspending the practice of cooperation (known as ‘returns’).
When the final legal aid reforms were unveiled last Thursday the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) said: ‘This announcement by the Justice Secretary is a shameful day in legal and criminal justice history. Cutting legal aid fees so that experienced legal aid lawyers are driven out of business, leaves clients at the mercy of low-paid, unqualified lawyers – unless of course they are rich enough to afford a private lawyer. Which let’s face it, most are not.’
The strength of feeling among the criminal Bar has also led to a further call for the resignation of Fluck and Hudson from solicitor James Parry of Liverpool-based firm Parry Welch Lacey.
It was Parry who sparked last year’s motion of no confidence in the pair’s leadership, after gaining enough signatures to demand a special general meeting on 17 December, at which the motion was narrowly voted through.
Parry this week published a second open letter stating that Hudson and Fluck are ‘not fit and proper persons’ to hold office, on the grounds that they failed to take notice of the vote of no confidence and failed to negotiate with the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice as directed.
‘They proved unable or unwilling to accomplish either task with any degree of efficacy. They chose an approach of collaboration with the Lord Chancellor which was at odds with the stance of all other representative bodies and the will of the majority of criminal legal aid practitioners.’
Parry added: ‘Those of us who intend to carry on the fight cannot afford to carry the continued ineptitude of the Law Society and if we are to stand any chance of success must publicly distance ourselves from what has been done.’
A spokesperson for the Law Society said: ‘The president and the CEO, with the full support of the Society’s council, continue to focus their efforts on helping as many members as possible deal with these unwelcome changes.’