Solicitors are being pushed towards taking “disruptive action” in a row with the Government over pay for legal aid work, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.
The body representing solicitors said an escalation of industrial action was “near inevitable” over the Government’s “baffling refusal” to grant a 15% rise in fees for criminal defence work.
Last month, barristers went back to work after agreeing to accept a fresh pay offer from the Government, ending long-running strike action by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA).
But there were fears at the time that the deal could prompt a walkout by solicitors after the Law Society said the dispute on legal aid funding for criminal cases – which pays for representation in court when defendants cannot afford their own – was “far from over”.
Law Society president Lubna Shuja said on Thursday: “An escalation of action by law firm owners is near inevitable given the Government’s baffling refusal to implement our demands for the bare minimum 15% increase for criminal defence solicitors, which was recommended by their own review.
“The Government caved into barrister strike action but is refusing to give parity to solicitors who kept the wheels of justice turning during that strike. This has angered and galvanised the solicitor profession.
“Some criminal law solicitors are now considering forming a union to organise direct action. They have seen that this Government does not listen to reason and that direct action gets results.”
Describing solicitors as the “backbone of the criminal justice system”, Ms Shuja said they were “leaving the profession in droves because they are not being treated fairly and equally. If nothing is done to stop those remaining from leaving, the court backlogs will continue to grow, access to justice will be denied to many, defendants will not be prosecuted and talk of being ‘tough on crime’ will be nothing but empty promises”.
She added: “If the Government doesn’t give solicitors parity when their full response to the review is published later this month, we will advise our members that there is no viable future in criminal legal aid work.”
Earlier this week owners of law firms holding more than 150 criminal legal aid contracts across the country met to discuss the “evolving crisis”.
The number of firms with contracts is at a “historic low”, as is the number of duty solicitors, leaving an increasing gap between the amount of work and the number of people available to do it, the group said.
They concluded “market failure” was only a matter of time without enough new solicitors entering the criminal law profession.
Supporting calls for Justice Secretary Dominic Raab to adopt the recommended fee rises, they launched the Criminal Legal Aid Contractors Association to offer a “unified voice” and in the hope of working with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Legal Aid Agency on behalf of members.
Without the pay rise, firms will have “no choice but to cease to undertake work that is financially unsustainable for their practice, potentially leaving vulnerable defendants without the benefit of legal representation”, the group warned.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “Our criminal legal aid reforms mean a 15% fee increase for nearly all criminal legal aid fees, worth £63 million annually for solicitors, who have also benefitted from our recent deal to end the barristers’ strike.
“We are now investing £1.2 billion a year into criminal legal aid and will announce further uplifts for solicitors and plans to reform crown court fee schemes in due course.”