21st July 2015
On Thursday there will be a remarkable meeting about the current crisis in criminal legal aid – remarkable that it is taking place at all, remarkable in who is attending it, and remarkable that it appears to have no preconditions.
Everyone who should be there will be around the table, and it would seem that there is nothing “off the table”.
It is a credit to everyone involved.
Michael Gove, the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, will meet representatives of four criminal lawyers’ groups.
This is a shift in approach by the MoJ, which under Michael Gove’s predecessor gloried childishly in confrontation and provocation. And this was unfortunate, as the MoJ was formulating and implementing a botched “reform” of legal aid.
For the four lawyers’ groups to be in one place is exceptional: for when cats complain, they must complain of herding lawyers.
Two of the groups, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, represent the smaller legal aid firms. They will be joined by the “BFG” (not the Big Friendly Giant, sadly, but the “Big Firms Group” of the larger solicitors’ firms). The BFG is not entirely a natural ally of the other two groups.
And there will also be the Criminal Bar Association (CBA). Until recently the executive of the CBA was persisting in a misguided (if possibly well-meaning) policy of “constructive engagement” with the MoJ. In effect, this meant that the CBA sought to protect barristers’ fees and higher court advocacy, regardless of the interests of solicitors. This suits the MoJ, which in turn played solicitors off against barristers.
Last week’s significant vote by the CBA membership changed all this. The members defied the leaders and voted to adopt a “no returns” policy which, in effect, will bring the work of crown courts to a halt. No returns will start on 27 July. The date is now looming; and the policy will significantly escalate the effect of the boycott on criminal legal aid work which has been in place since 1 July.
Had the members of the CBA not voted against their leadership, it is difficult to see that Thursday’s meeting would be taking place, and that all four lawyer groups would be attending.
The best chance of resolving the current crisis, in a way acceptable to all sides, is for the meeting to succeed.
If a public confrontation is forced then there will be lingering damage. If one side “gives in” then there will be lasting resentment. If nothing is done, the criminal justice system will slide further into chaos.
Michael Gove has made fine speeches since his appointment. He has said many of the right things. But Thursday will be perhaps his first real test of substance: can the crisis be resolved so that the criminal courts can work again?