When I moved my family from our council flat in Peckham (in a southern city now known as ‘Moscow-on-Thames’) to the relative housing sanity of the Midlands at the turn of the century, legal aid remuneration was considerably better than it is now. Even basic agency rates in 2000 eclipsed those currently offered by the CPS.
I set up on my own after enduring practice with an HoC who habitually rolled into Court with three pilot cases full of PCMH’s, leaving rent fodder (as I then was) with the odd probation breach. Ten years later, I still enjoy freedom from the rents and constraints of most conventional Chambers. With a common law practice incorporating Public Access work, I readily admit to being not so vulnerable to the effects of the cuts. That does not mean I am in favour of the terrible destruction of the criminal justice system by, of all people, the Ministry of Justice.
The following years brought no increases in AGFS, just cuts from the government. The criminal Bar were extremely restrained. Indeed, when we did summon up the courage to undertake limited industrial action, in 2005, it was over even before it began to take effect, our Circuit Leader of the time announcing to the press, without any ballot: ‘We have made our point and have returned to work.’
In 2014, the present cuts mask a wholesale attack on the criminal justice system.
The Law Society rolled over meekly, much to the fury of many small firms whose profit margins will disappear under the burden of 17.5% cuts.
The only route to survival for those firms will be to do Crown Court work in-house, leaving even less for the criminal Bar. That is so even if we leave the current ‘deal’ in place and cuts to AGFS (VHCC aside) staved off for another year.
We were told that this ‘deal’ was only open to the CBA for two days, leaving no time for consultation in the form of a ballot. I openly criticised (@carnybull) Circuit Leaders for agreeing without consulting the membership, feeling that the ‘deal’ took the impetus away from our successful action. Yet it now emerges (via Simon Csoka QC) that the Bar Council were seemingly in negotiations over the ‘deal’ for a couple of weeks before it was presented as a fait accompli.
In other words:
(i) the Bar Council said nothing to its members about preliminary negotiations, even as it was announced that the ‘deal’ was done; and
(ii) there was time for a ballot before anyone agreed to the ‘deal’; and
(iii) if the successful ‘No Returns’ action was not suspended, there was more pressure on the MoJ to adopt a less unilateral position during a ballot; and
(iv) ‘No Returns’ combined with the actions of LCCSA and CLSA members, as they failed to apply for rep orders for the Crown Court, would rapidly bring the MoJ to their knees.
We are not in this for greed. We took action for a noble cause and that aim remains true.
Rejecting the ‘deal’ and reinstating No Returns gives us – and the small and medium-sized solicitors most us depend upon – a fighting chance of defeating the cuts. Yes, there is a chance that Grayling will bring cuts forward and reconsider OCOF. But he can do little if the criminal Bar and solicitors maintain industrial action which rapidly brings the Courts to a halt.
To those who say juniors have suffered enough over No Returns, I ask you to remember how effective the strategy proved over just 3 weeks, compared to the year of the Miners’ Strike.
We are not going to suffer anything like the Miners. It is not too much of a sacrifice to continue No Returns and just as, if not more, risky to live with the ‘deal’. We have a chance to fight or to lose anyway; as otherwise dual contracts force solicitors to move further into Crown Court work.
After all, what is the use of a stay of execution if it means you can’t eat enough to survive?
That’s why I’m voting YES.