Gove calls make-or-break meeting in bid to resolve crime legal aid dispute

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By Jonathan Ames on

Four lawyer lobbying groups will meet Justice Secretary — but Law Society and Bar Council are in the cold


Four pressure groups will trudge into the Whitehall offices of the Ministry of Justice tomorrow to have a chinwag with the Secretary of State about a tiny disagreement over crime legal aid rates.

The event could be a craven example of window-dressing by Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, an attempt to appear to be negotiating while not really giving a monkey’s about lawyer concerns. Or it could result in an honest deal.

Some legal profession commentators have been slightly charmed by Gove and are keen to give him the benefit of the doubt so far. There are suggestions that the lobby groups — the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, the Big Firms Group (a collection of the country’s largest crime specialist solicitors’ practices) and the Criminal Bar Association — could find him in compromise mode.

For example, in his own Jack of Kent blog published yesterday, the Financial Times’s occasional online columnist David Allen Green waxed:

Michael Gove has made fine speeches since his appointment. He has said many of the right things.

However, Green went on to warn:

Thursday will be perhaps his first real test of substance: can the crisis be resolved so that the criminal courts can work again?

Judging by the mood of a demonstration outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London this morning (pictured), not all lawyers share Green’s sanguine view of the Lord Chancellor.


But whatever happens at tomorrow’s meeting, neither of the legal profession’s big trade unions will be in the room to witness the discussion. The Law Society and the Bar Council are both NFI (that’s “not fucking invited” for anyone born pre-1990), with neither commenting on the reasons for their absence.

That lack of participation is more interesting in relation to the Law Society. On the face of it, the society’s members — criminal law solicitors — have more skin in this game and therefore Chancery Lane officials should be clamouring for a seat at the table.

Solicitors face a second round of 8.75% fee cuts in the span of less than a year, so it would stand to reason that the society’s Grand Poobahs would want to be seen to be in the ring throwing punches.

But the Law Society is scarred by experience. Around 18 months ago, criminal law specialists organised a successful vote of no confidence in the Chancery Lane leadership.

Their gripe was that the outfit’s then president and chief executive — Nicholas Fluck and Des Hudson, respectively — had effectively crawled inside the pocket of Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling.

The argument ran that Chancery Lane played softball with Grayling because the society feared that if it irritated ministers, the government would pull the plug on the long-standing deal that allows the organisation to fund its activities through an effective mandatory tax on practising solicitors.

Fluck and Hudson argued vehemently that the softly, softly diplomatic approach with Grayling would result in the profession catching its monkey. But criminal law solicitors didn’t buy that line and slapped the society with a verdict of no confidence.

Fluck limped on for another six months until his one-year term finished; Hudson resigned — or “retired”, claiming that he had been planning to leave for months and that his departure had nothing to do with being humiliated by Grayling and solicitors alike.

Against that backdrop, it’s not difficult to understand why the Law Society hierarchy would probably rather be anywhere on Thursday than sitting around a Petty France table with Gove.

But what about the Bar Council? At first glance, criminal law barristers have not piled nearly as much opprobrium on it as their solicitor counterparts have on their representative body.

However, the council seems happy to let the Criminal Bar Association lead on negotiations with the government, probably reckoning that while it would be nice to bag brownie points if détente is reached, it’s not worth the risk of catching the flack if the talks fail.

For the time being, neither of the legal profession big beasts is commenting directly on their absence from tomorrow’s gathering. But while the Bar Council remained completely schtum, a Law Society spokesman issued a broad statement:

Solicitors are facing difficult decisions about what to do in the short term and the long term in view of the government’s cuts. It is good that those who have been balloting for action have the chance to speak direct to the government. We work closely with the practitioner groups to reflect the concerns of criminal defence solicitors in our discussions with the Ministry of Justice. We continue to have regular meetings with the ministry on a range of issues.

Images via @JoanaRamiro and @MaryRachel_McC