Solicitors could step up 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 described the government’s failure to grant a 15% rise in fees for criminal defence work as recommended by a government review as “baffling” and said that it seemed inevitable that industrial action would have to be initiated.
Law Society president Lubna Shuja said: “The government caved into barrister strike action but is refusing to give parity to solicitors who kept the wheels of justice turning during that strike. This has angered and galvanised the solicitor profession.
“An escalation of action by law firm owners is near inevitable, given the government’s baffling refusal to implement the bare minimum 15% increase for criminal defence solicitors recommended by its own review.”
Earlier this week (8 November), criminal legal aid firm owners discussed the government’s final response to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid later this month.
Shuja said criminal law solicitors were considering forming a union to organise direct action, because they had seen “this government does not listen to reason and that direct action gets results.” She added that solicitors were “leaving the profession in droves because they are not being treated fairly and equally,” which would mean more people being denied access to justice and court backlogs continuing to grow.
She said that unless minister grant parity to solicitors when its full response to the review is published later this month, the Law Society would “make it clear to our members that there is no viable future in criminal legal aid work”.
The Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid looked at ensuring the long-term sustainability of the criminal legal aid system. The review was chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy KC, who concluded in 2021 that funding for criminal legal aid should be increased overall for solicitors and barristers alike “to an annual level of at least 15% above present levels”.
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association told this week’s meeting of crime contract holders that it was commissioning advice from counsel on forming a union for legal aid lawyers.
It told the Law Gazette: “Our members understand from recent events that only industrial action appears to be successful in securing much needed investment and as we look to the future and a sustainable profession, all options must be available to our members to take decisive action.”
Contractual obligations have meant criminal solicitors have been unable to strike, so have been restricted to taking action such as boycotting poorly paid work such as burglary cases.
Last month, former Criminal Bar Association secretary Lucie Wibberley suggested solicitors instruct a commercial silk to review their ‘unfair’ government contract and unionise en masse.
The Law Society, the main representative body for solicitors but not a trade union, has already warned that should the government’s response to the Bellamy review be unsatisfactory, members will be advised to shun criminal defence work.