The recent half day ‘strike’ on Monday 6th January by barristers and solicitors practising in criminal law is of great significance. Mark French, a legal aid lawyer who took part in this action, comments on the next step forward for those battling against the Coalition’s cuts to legal aid.
The recent half day ‘strike’ by barristers and solicitors practising in criminal law is of great significance. On the morning of 6th January 2014 thousands of court advocates across England and Wales made themselves absent from any court hearings that they were due to attend on that day, with many hundreds attending meetings and demonstrations outside court buildings. Even the Old Bailey, the most important criminal Crown Court in the country was affected as barristers in their professional whigs and gowns picketed the front entrance waving placards.
Up and down the country trials had to be interrupted, and other court hearings vacated. For the most part even the Judges were sympathetic, agreeing without much fuss to adjourn hearings when it was apparent that there were literally no defence lawyers in court. I was outside Westminster Magistrates Court with about 200 people there on the busy Marylebone Road, one of the main routes out of London heading west. There were lorry drivers showing their support by hooting as they went past and it really lifted everyone’s spirits each time. I must remember to do that when ever I drive past striking workers from now on, now that I know how good that it will make them feel!
The day of action by lawyers was unprecedented in the UK. It is being seen by many in the profession as a morale boosting opening salvo in what could become a long drawn out dispute between legal aid lawyers and a government which seems hell bent on imposing draconian cuts in the provision of legal aid in police stations, Magistrates Courts, Crown Courts and prisons.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ), headed by Chris Grayling, intends to cut £220 million from the annual budget that is set aside each year to pay for legal aid in criminal proceedings. In the great scheme of things this isn’t a huge sum. The annual budget for UK public spending involves about £700 billion. £220 million is probably about the same as it will cost to build one or two miles of the planned HS2 high speed railway between London and Birmingham.
The proposed cuts to legal aid, however, represent about 17.5% of solicitors fee income nationally, and up to 30% of some barristers fees. This comes after years of cuts to legal aid funding by successive governments going back decades. For solicitors firms in London it will in actual fact be a 40% cut in income. Cuts on this scale are completely unsustainable if the same levels of service is going to be provided in the future.
For lawyers representing clients on legal aid these latest cuts really are the final nail in the coffin. They know that once they are imposed then we can all kiss goodbye to there being any adequate facilities for ordinary working class people to have legal advice and representation when they are being prosecuted.
Law firms that represent people on legal aid are mostly small businesses with very tight profit margins. A great many will be driven out of business. The government doesn’t dispute this. It may seem incredible but it actually wants this to happen, so that the whole legal aid sector can be reorganised and made into a more attractive business opportunity for much larger operators who can make big profits through economies of scale etc. This is a process that is happening all across the Criminal Justice System as privatisation is being imposed on the Probation Service and in the prisons. Big business is moving into areas of the economy that it used to never even look at before.
Last year morale amongst ordinary solicitors and barristers was low. Many are very hard working and committed individuals who go all out for their clients. They don’t earn particularly high salaries, mostly about the same as what teachers or social workers get, but without the pension provision or fringe benefits of working in a large organisation.
People felt that they were being forced into a future where they would no longer be able to do their job properly due to financial constraints. Many of the older ones, solicitors who in some cases pioneered the development of legal aid way back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when the police were very hostile towards even allowing solicitors into police stations at all, have left the profession because they don’t want to work in such an exploitative and unpleasant environment. They could see that things are returning to what they were like in the bad old days, when miscarriages of justice were common, and there was nothing that could be done to stop it, with the additional misery of taking a 20-30% cut in salary and having to eventually work for companies like SERCO and G4S etc.
But not everyone has the option of simply retiring. Most have no choice but to have a fight. A solicitor at a small London office that I know told me that even his boss, a life long Tory voter, was ok about the 6th January 2014 ‘strike’, saying to him “…the gloves are off. This is a no holds barred fight to the finish. Chris Grayling is a c&$t.”
The talk now amongst barristers and solicitors is of arranging further days of action, although no firm dates have been set yet. For the time being, at present, it seems that everyone is feeling very pleased about how the day went, and how it was reported in the media. A psychological barrier has been overcome. Lawyers are generally a conservative bunch of people, often very cautious and pedantic in their approach to things. It probably goes with the nature of the job they do.
There has also been a historic division between barristers and solicitors who have often viewed each other with some suspicion. Before the 6th January 2014 strike some said it would be easier to herd cats than organise lawyers to act in a united fashion. Getting barristers and solicitors to strike together took a fair amount of advance preparation, including a motion of ‘no confidence’ being passed in the performance of the leadership of the Law Society, the representative body for all solicitors. The ‘no confidence’ motion was passed at an angry mass meeting of solicitors in the week before Christmas after it has become obvious in recent months that the Law Society leadership have absolutely no intention of leading any fightback campaign.
So far it is the barristers that have led the way. The Law Society has let its members down already. Perhaps not surprising when one considers that it is more the creature of the big corporate law firms in the City of London whose clients are big banks and monopolies, rather than the humble legal aid lawyers. But there are bodies representing solicitors who are showing a willingness to fight, such as the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, and the more nationally organised Criminal Law Solicitors Association. These bodies are the nearest thing to trade unions that solicitors in this field of law have. The way forward for them has to be to join with barristers in calling for further days of action, with approaches to the other workers in the Criminal Justice System, such as Probation Officers who are facing privatisation, as well as the court staff who are also facing spending cuts and continued court closures.
Such a united approach by all groups of workers in the criminal justice system, organised on a court-by-court basis with a representative body from each sector at each court up and down the country, could stop the MOJ in it’s tracks. There is to be a general election in 2015. The government, which is riven with division between Tories and Lib Dems, whose respective MPs are nervous about holding onto their seats, is bound to be weakened by any protracted resistance. To fail to act now will leave the Criminal Justice System seriously exposed to attack by the government after 2015, whatever its colour.
This struggle has to be stepped up and extended out to involve workers throughout the justice system – and ultimately throughout the entire labour movement. By joining up with workers across all sectors in a united fight – against the coalition government and for a socialist programme – the struggle can be won.