Courts across the Midlands grind to a halt

Courts across the Midlands could grind to a halt on Friday, 7 March, as barristers and solicitors stage a mass walk-out in protest to Government cuts to the legal aid budget.

Birmingham Crown Court and Magistrates’ Court will be affected. In addition, proceedings at Coventry Crown Court and Wolverhampton Crown Court and magistrates’ courts in Coventry, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall, Redditch, Kidderminster and Worcester are likely to be disturbed.

The protest is in response to the Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling’s latest round of cuts, announced on 27 February, which saw a further £220million shaved off the legal aid bill. It follows on from a court boycott by law workers on 6 January, the first in 400 years.

As a result of the cuts, solicitors specialising in criminal litigation are to have their fees cut by 17.5 per cent – an 8.75 per cent cut comes into force from 20 March this year, with a further 8.75 per cent implemented in March/April next year.

Barristers will have their fees reduced by six per cent, on top of the 30 per cent cut to fees for complex cases implemented in December 2013.

In addition, the number of firms who undertake duty solicitor work – advising those detained by the police of their legal rights – will be slashed from more than 1,200 to 525 across England and Wales.

In the West Midlands, just 13 contracts will be available, for which firms will need to compete.

Birmingham Law Society (BLS), the biggest regional law society in the country, representing more than 4,000 solicitors and barristers across the West Midlands, has condemned the cuts.

James Turner, chairman of BLS’s criminal law committee, attended a consultation with Chris Grayling at The Law Society’s Chancery Lane headquarters in February.

He said: “Our worst fears have been confirmed. The impact on the criminal justice system will be devastating.”

According to Mr Turner, the cuts will result in many firms going out of business, which means those accused of a crime will find it harder to find representation.

In Birmingham, there are currently 53 firms providing duty solicitors to the central Birmingham scheme. The new system will see just 13 contracts awarded across the entire West Midlands Criminal Justice Service (CJS) area. This means that firms in Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Solihull, Sandwell and Dudley will all have to compete for the handful of contracts.

Mr Turner said: “A large number of the firms I have spoken with have confirmed that if they do not get a duty provider contract their business will no longer be viable.

“Even if they win a contract, firms are concerned about how they will gear up to provide a service across the whole CJS area, particularly as there are no fees for travel or waiting time.

“The Government has suggested that firms merge, or form consortia to bid for the contracts, but this is easier said than done. Scaling up requires resources, infrastructure, IT resources and management skills, which many of them lack. What’s more, it will be nigh on impossible to secure bank funding to underwrite this exercise, given the odds of winning a contract.”

Martin Allsopp, president of Birmingham Law Society, believes the cuts will result in a two-tier legal system.

He said: “Under the new regime, society’s most vulnerable people and hard working families will struggle to get experienced representation. Justice in the future may now be only available to those who can afford it.

“Already a number of serious fraud trials have been hit as barristers are unable to act for defendants on the new lower rates. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

“The Government is wreaking irreparable damage on our criminal justice system, which to date has been the envy of the world. I am concerned we will see the innocent go to prison and the guilty walk free as a result.”

Martin Allsopp and James Turner will be among those outside Birmingham Crown Court on Friday 7 March.