‘THOSE who cannot afford to pay for a solicitor, and those who are denied legal aid, are suffering at the hands of the government’, Gemma Blythe from Young Legal Aid Lawyers warned yesterday.
She was speaking as barristers began their strike in solidarity with criminal defence solicitors, who face cuts of 8.75% to their legal aid fees. That is on top of 8.75% a year ago, so in total, legal aid fees have been cut by 17.5%.
The legal aid system sees lawyers paid from public funds to provide representation for people facing legal proceedings who otherwise would not be able to afford a lawyer. The cuts mean that hundreds of small, high street law firms will be unable to survive and will go bankrupt.
This in turn will make it more difficult, particularly for working class people, to access justice, creating a two-tier system – one for the rich and one for the working class. Legal aid has suffered repeated cuts under the past two governments.
As part of their strike, as of yesterday, barristers have begun refusing to take on Crown Court cases.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which backed the strike in a ballot two weeks ago, met last night to discuss whether to continue the action today.
Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, warned their strike could continue ‘for a considerable period of time’. Solicitors have already been striking since July 1st, when the cuts came in, initially refusing all new work in both Magistrates and Crown Courts. They have staged a series of protests outside courts nationwide.
Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Court Solicitors Association, said: ‘Hundreds of solicitors’ firms around the country will close down, developing instead into mass justice warehouses, legal aid warehouses, where cases will be packed high and sold cheap. High street firms that ordinary people know how to access will be decimated.’
Steve Hynes, director of Legal Action Group, told News Line: ‘There are two strands to this dispute, the latest cut to legal aid was taken on the July 1. ‘The second part of this dispute is the tendering out of police and magistrates court work. Bigger firms will have undoubtedly put in their bids for this work, however the smaller and medium size firms will potentially miss out. Most of the criminal work goes through the magistrates courts, not the crown courts, so this is the bulk of criminal work. There are 1,600 firms in the UK and potentially as many as 1,000 firms could go to the wall.’
‘There is a concern that by undercutting the price so much, we are heading into the situation which you find in the US. In the US there is a very threadbare system in place. In most states the very poorest have public defenders, everybody else has to pay to be defended.’