As the strike by criminal legal aid lawyers captures the media’s attention, they have a chance to put some real pressure on the government.
The casual observer may question if the protest action taken over the last three weeks by criminal solicitors over legal aid fees, and expanded today to include barristers, isn’t all just about money.
They may well ask.
After all, while legal aid lawyers are far from millionaires, most earn more than the average national wage. In truth, the strike is about money and it isn’t about money.
When solicitors stopped taking new police station and magistrates’ cases after the second tranche of 8.75% came in on 1 July, they did so stating that solicitors could not ‘properly discharge their professional obligations’ for the ‘derisory rates’ that the Ministry of Justice was prepared to pay.
They have warned for some time, that the cut, which comes on the back of previous cuts, coupled with the contracting reforms, will drive quality firms and lawyers out of business. As a consequence, the standard of representation given to those who need it will drop, increasing the likelihood of miscarriages of justice.
While they naturally need to earn money to pay mortgages, rents, wages, etc, they have argued that is not the size of their pay cheques that they are protesting about. If they give up now, observers may feel their argument has been disingenuous.
How could they be unable to provide a service to the standard to meet their professional obligations three weeks ago, and yet be able to do it now.
The profession should capitalise on the increased media attention that the strike has garnered since the bar has joined in. It’s nearly August – the ‘silly season’ for Fleet Street when news schedules are less full.
If the papers are given stories about the chaos caused in the courts, they will run them, which could ramp up the pressure on Gove to do something positive to stop the strike.
The profession should quit squabbling on social media over who was or was not invited out to play and stop second-guessing what different factions of the sector may or may be plotting, and remember what they all striving to achieve – justice for those who in one way or another find themselves in the criminal justice system.
In his first speech in post, Justice Secretary Michael Gove said he recognised there were two levels of justice in the UK – one for the rich and one for everyone else, and he articulated a desire to change that. I
f he is in earnest, now’s his chance to prove that. He must put his money where his mouth is, or he too may be judged disingenuous.
If he wants a quality justice system, he must be prepared to pay for that. And if he is only prepared to pay for justice-light, he should come clean and admit it.
To encourage him to pursue the right course, the profession must stay united and stay strong, despite the financial suffering that strike action is causing.
It is vital that the Criminal Bar Association in particular, which meets tonight to consider its next steps in light of the solicitor’s revised action, sticks with the action.
All must consider what price they are prepared to pay for justice?