Document underlines difficulty profession faces in presenting a united front against government legal aid policy
A law firm that claims to be the biggest provider of publicly funded Crown Court work has partially backed the government’s legal aid cuts in defence of its own decision not to support a criminal law practitioners strike.
Management at 17-lawyer strong Abbey Solicitors in Manchester issued an internal memo (embedded below) on Friday that was leaked to the press.
The note maintained that descriptions of the firm as a strike-breaker were unfair because the senior partners were clear in advance of the action that they did not support the move, with senior partner Nadeem Ullah writing
We have not broken direct action in Manchester. This is a misrepresentation; we made our position clear at the outset, we are not prepared to participate in any action.
Ullah went on to justify that decision by saying:
In this time of austerity, to sustain legal aid we recognise the government has had make [sic] cuts across all areas of public spending, including criminal legal aid. We do not believe causing disruption to the courts by refusing to take on new cases from 1st July 2015 is the answer to the very grave long-term problems the CJS [criminal justice system] faces.
In the document, which was leaked to Legal Cheek, Ullah said the firm’s decision was not taken lightly and was in most part motivated by a continuing “commitment to helping the most vulnerable”.
Abbey’s senior partner also addressed recent social media attacks on the firm for “being disloyal”. Said Ullah:
… wider issues are at stake other than fees. We remind our colleagues the decision to take on publicly funded work is an individual one. We are not a trade union. We therefore ask those unhappy with our stance to respect our individual decision.
Ullah criticised elements of the legal aid law firm fraternity for not holding firm when Whitehall put the reformed contract out for tender. He claimed that there have been more than 1,500 bids for about 500 contracts, continuing:
We were all aware when bidding for the contracts the fee cut would be built into the new rates. The profession should have taken a stand at that point by refusing to bid for the contracts. Supply would have outweighed demand and the government would have been forced to rethink its policy. However, as there are more firms bidding than there are contracts. It is abundantly clear what the economics are … the profession has acted too late.
On Merseyside — where the latest round of legal aid strike action began last week — lawyers were convinced they were making an impact.
At the end of last week, Zoe Gascoyne, a partner at Liverpool law firm Quinn Melville, told the Liverpool Echo:
There’s been massive disruption. There’s been considerable disruption in police stations and across the country with people not able to access legal advice … This action will cause a huge strain on the courts system. Unrepresented defendants take an awful lot longer to deal with.
Indeed, there are reports that lawyers from the government’s Public Defender Service (PDS) have had to be called in to reduce the disruption caused by the protests. But a Ministry of Justice spokesman dismissed the effects as “negligible”, stating:
Courts sat as usual. Over 95% of cases at a police station requiring a solicitor were picked up within an hour — little different to any other day.
Meanwhile, over the weekend the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) issued a release reminding its members of the “no returns” protocol as it announced that it is balloting members on whether they want to support solicitors by reviving last year’s policy of refusing new work.