By Rebecca Carter
In a turbulent week for criminal lawyers, the profession, until recently so united in protest against legal aid fee cuts, has voiced strong and mixed reaction to the Criminal Bar Association’s (CBA) decision to call off the imminent two days of action and their no returns policy.
The announcement from CBA Chairman Nigel Lithman QC came following a deal reached with the Ministry of Justice in which they agreed to suspend all fee cuts for graduated fee cases until the next general election in summer 2015: “This gives 89% of the Criminal Bar (those that do not do VHCC cases) what they have demanded and has been achieved by their resolve”.
Twitter was immediately awash with words of lament and anger at the decision, reflecting a view from some that Nigel Lithman had “sold out”.
“I now seem to have replaced Mr. Grayling as Public Enemy No.1” said a shocked Mr Lithman in a new announcement today, in which he gave a considered explanation of his decision and called for a ballot of CBA members on the question of the days of action and no returns.
The HLE team reported on the scene at the London Grayling Day demonstration on 7 March where we interviewed Nigel Lithman. Three weeks on, we look at how the views of the CBA and the criminal lawyers affected have changed.
Then: Grayling Day
Interview with CBA Chairman Nigel Lithman QC:
“.. people are unwilling to come into the profession to be a part of it and without them.. it will wither and die..”
Interview with David Jones, 2 Dr Johnson’s Buildings:
“It is not about the fees, it is about the system..”
Interview with Andrew Tucker, Cornwall Street Chambers:
“We are determined that these cuts are not going to be implemented.”
Interview with Melanie Krudy, GT Stewart Solicitors:
“£250 for twelve hours at a police station – it works out at practically nothing..”
Now: government concession and a pending ballot
“It was always going to be difficult herding 4,000 self-employed practitioners, but, for well-known reasons, the CBA executive managed to lead their troops into battle. Chris Grayling no doubt was told that it couldn’t be done; the Bar had accepted cut after cut and would just accept another. How wrong he and his advisers were.
The Bar was in a unique position of being self-employed and thus, unlike solicitors, not contracted to the LAA – they could take a stand if united, but that unity would come at a cost. Personally, I was in agreement with those who saw the measures adopted as a proportionate way to seek to bring the government to the negotiating table. That has been achieved and it is right that the negotiations now take place.
I am saddened at the vitriol that is now being vented at the CBA executive, especially as it was clearly not their decision alone. It’s especially sad as, having been so unified, the Criminal Bar is publicly showing the Ministry of Justice that the unity is dissipating.
The difficulty with any ensuing vote is that there are 4,000 competing views, yet 4,000 cannot negotiate with the Ministry. At some stage, individuals have to trust their leaders to do the best they can; to try and please the greatest number.”
“It was the right decision by the CBA to call for a ballot so that the decision reflects the views of all the members on such an important issue. There is an impression that Chris Grayling is deploying his well-known and obvious “divide and rule” ploy to reduce the impact of the protest action, particularly before the solicitors’ days of action next week.
The no returns policy was working and I would vote to continue that action to obtain an absolute commitment to rescind the proposed cuts to Graduated fees and restore VHCC rates to a fair and reasonable level. I will not work on any VHCC case at the new rates.”
“I am delighted that the Justice Secretary has at last listened seriously to the justified complaints of the criminal Bar as regards the proposed further cuts in graduated fees. There is little public sympathy in paying for barristers “to defend criminals” until people are themselves wrongly accused of crime; when they realise how important it is to have men and women of real ability to defend them. Let us hope that these cuts are permanently cancelled, because otherwise it will only be the well-off who will be able to afford to go to the criminal Bar.
I would expect the criminal Bar to heave a collective sigh of relief, and overwhelmingly to support the CBA’s decision to call off the “no returns” policy and the days of action.
It is a pity that the cuts in big cases will stand, because the resulting hourly level of payment will be so low that very few barristers will be able to afford to accept that work.”
“I agree with the action taken by the CBA and I will be voting for an end to the no returns policy. The Bar acted as one to prevent further cuts to graduated fees. Solicitors had the opportunity to take similar action, but have chosen to continue accepting work at the lower rates. A continuation of the no returns policy would not, in my view, make a difference to cuts already imposed.
It is right that the Bar continue to support solicitors in their fight. We should not cover any cases that they cannot do as a result of their days of action and we should continue to lobby during the various consultations for fair remuneration for the work they do.
The CBA has shown their strength and the government will now take our views seriously. I do not believe the Bar should have been balloted before agreeing to end the no returns policy; we elected our representatives to deal with the political negotiations for us and they have acted in our best interests. If we had refused the deal put forward, we would all be worse off. This allows a time of reflection and time for coordinated campaigning to ensure we get a good deal for all members of the criminal justice system.”
With the barristers’ ballot pending and solicitors expected to go ahead with the two days of action next week on 31st March and 1 April, this is an issue that is far from being resolved, but it must surely bolster the profession that their voices have been heard and they have succeeded in achieving some concessions from the government.
Do you agree with the CBA’s decisions? Will you be attending the days of action? How will you vote in the CBA ballot?
Tell us your views below and tweet us @HLEThinkTank.