Meek surrender or clever tactic? No one quite knows as lawyers suspend 52 day legal aid strike

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Court boycott called off as “gesture of goodwill”


Solicitors and barristers have this morning suspended their 52 day action against further cuts to legal aid despite receiving no offer to settle the dispute — and nobody seems to be quite sure why.

The official line from the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association is that the move is a “gesture of goodwill” towards Lord Chancellor Michael Gove and his Ministry of Justice pals.

The bodies’ joint statement says that they made the move after having had “the opportunity to engage with the Ministry of Justice” and “provide ideas for long terms savings as a direct alternative to a cut in rates”. It continues:

Although no offer to settle the issue has yet been made, as a gesture of goodwill and recognising the importance of this engagement we firmly believe that the time is right to suspend the action with immediate effect. By doing so we hope the relationship which has now been established will continue into the future. There are many challenges ahead and the engagement to date is a sign that those challenges can be debated constructively in a receptive atmosphere.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has backed the move, with its boss, Mark Fenhalls QC, reporting recent “productive dialogue with the MoJ” that has led him to conclude:

There is no reason why barristers should not accept any fresh instructions.

But many legal aid lawyers on Twitter are not taking these pronouncements at face value, indicating that the criminal lawyer professional bodies have decided to “roll over”. Among the dissatisfied is Simon Myerson QC, who indicated that the strike had hit cash-strapped junior barristers particularly hard — and the decision not to follow-though with it effectively made it pointless.

But others, such as the respected legal affairs commentator David Allen Green (who tweets as Jack of Kent), suggested that the decision was a “strategic” power play designed to strengthen lawyers’ position in their ongoing negotiations with the MoJ.

Green noted that the strike hadn’t been cancelled altogether, with legal aid lawyers now presumably able to use the threat of further action as they try to hammer out a deal.

However it all pans out, the news will come as a relief to the creaking justice system, which has been mired in chaos since the strike began on 1 July and gained traction when barristers joined in at the end of that month. The turmoil — which was unleashed in a bid to prevent criminal solicitor fees being slashed by a second 8.75 per cent reduction in 15 months — reached its zenith on 10 August when two defendants charged with murder reportedly appeared without representation at Sheffield Crown Court.