Lawyers are being pressured into taking ‘disruptive action’ in a row with the government over pay for legal aid work, the Law Society of England and Wales has warned.
The body representing lawyers said an escalation in industrial action was ‘almost inevitable’ due to the government’s ‘baffling refusal’ to grant a 15% increase in fees for criminal defense work.
Lawyers returned to work last month after accepting a new salary offer from the government, ending a long-running strike by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA).
But there were fears at the time that the deal could spark a walkout from lawyers after the Law Society said the dispute over funding legal aid for criminal cases – which pays for representation in court when defendants can’t afford theirs – was “far from finished”.
Law Society President Lubna Shuja said on Thursday: “An escalation in actions by law firm owners is almost inevitable given the government’s baffling refusal to implement our demands for a minimum 15% raise for criminal defense attorneys, which was recommended by their own review.
“The government gave in to the lawyers’ strike, but refuses to give parity to the lawyers who turned the wheels of justice during this strike. This irritated and galvanized the legal profession.
“Some criminal lawyers are now considering unionizing to organize direct action. They have seen that this government does not listen to reason and that direct action produces results.
Describing lawyers as “the backbone of the criminal justice system”, Ms Shuja said they are “leaving the profession in droves because they are not being treated fairly and equitably. If nothing is done to prevent those left behind from leaving, the backlog will continue to pile up, access to justice will be denied to many, defendants will not be prosecuted and talk of being ‘tough on crime’ “will only be empty promises”.
She added: “If the government does not give parity to lawyers when their full response to the review is published later this month, we will be telling our members that there is no viable future in the criminal legal aid work.”
Earlier this week, law firm owners holding more than 150 criminal legal aid contracts across the country came together to discuss the “evolving crisis.”
The number of companies with contracts is at a “historic low”, as is the number of duty counsel, leaving a growing gap between the amount of work and the number of people available to do it, the group said.
They concluded that “market failure” was only a matter of time without enough new lawyers entering the criminal law profession.
Supporting calls for Justice Secretary Dominic Raab to enact recommended fee increases, they launched the Criminal Legal Aid Contractors Association to provide a ‘unified voice’ and in hopes of working with the Department of Justice (MoJ) and the Legal Aid Agency on behalf of members.
Without the pay rise, companies will have “no choice but to stop undertaking financially unsustainable work for their practice, potentially leaving defendants vulnerable without the benefit of legal representation,” the group warned. .
The Department of Justice has been contacted for comment.