Courts throughout the West Midlands face chaos on Friday with a walkout by barristers and solicitors in protest at new Government cuts to the legal aid budget.
Criminal lawyers across the region are to stage a mass exodus in anger at Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s latest cutbacks, which will see a further £220 million shaved off the legal aid bill.
Birmingham Crown Court and Magistrates’ Court will be among courts hit, along with Coventry Crown Court, Wolverhampton Crown Court and magistrates’ courts in Coventry, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall, Redditch, Kidderminster and Worcester.
The protest is in response to the Government’s latest round of cuts, announced last week, and follows a courtroom boycott by barristers in early January, the first in 400 years. As a result of the latest cuts, solicitors specialising in criminal litigation are to have their fees reduced 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.
Birmingham Law Society, the biggest regional law society in the country, representing more than 4,000 solicitors and barristers across the West Midlands, today condemned the cuts.
James Turner, chairman of BLS’s criminal law committee, who attended a consultation with Chris Grayling at The Law Society’s Chancery Lane headquarters, said: “Our worst fears have been confirmed. The impact on the criminal justice system will be devastating.
“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.
“The Government has suggested that firms merge, or form consortia to bid for the contracts, but this is easier said than done.”
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. Firms in Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Solihull, Sandwell and Dudley will all have to compete for a handful of contracts.
Martin Allsopp, president of Birmingham Law Society, 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.”