DEFENDANTS in Gwent courts were left without representation yesterday as criminal solicitors refused to work in protest against legal aid cuts, which they say threaten the fairness of our justice system and will leave people “poorly represented”.
Solicitors in Newport Magistrates Court locked themselves in a consulting room and refused to go into cells or represent anybody.
Gareth Driscoll of Driscoll Young solicitors explained: “We have decided the best course of action is to do absolutely nothing. That way the courts will have an idea about how they would cope without criminal solicitors representing members of the public.
“Our efforts are born out of principle not greed. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial and all we are asking is for fair pay.”
The Ministry of Justice plans to slice £215 million out of the legal aid budget, resulting in fee reductions.
Those striking against the reform said high street solicitors will simply stop doing criminal cases. Rural areas like the South Wales valleys will be hit hard as they already have limited options available.
Lynda Rhead, of Gartsides in Newport, said: “A lot of people in this area have already been hit hard by legal aid in the last few years.
“A lot of us haven’t been paid because of the legal aid cutbacks. The courts don’t realise that. We haven’t been able to give staff a pay increase for eight years.”
She said the next step would likely be work-to-rule.
Rhydian James, of Roger James Clements and Partners, said the cuts will affect both low income and middle income families. He said: “People will be poorly represented. It’s about survival not greed. They are trying to implement a system which isn’t going to work.”
Scott Bowen of Keith Evans and Company, said: “You’re going to end up with a lot of people in prison who shouldn’t be there. There’s nothing else we can do – they haven’t listened to reason so far.”
Those on strike were from a range of Gwent firms including Harding Evans, JNP Legal, HPJV, Fonseca and Partners and Watkins and Gunn. More solicitors who had walked out of Cwmbran Magistrates later joined them in Newport.
Rod Young, partner at Driscoll Young Solicitors, said: “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the system but if inflation is going up, it’s not rocket science that legal aid rates need to go up at the same level, to maintain a standard of graduates coming into the profession.” Legal Aid Minister Shailesh Vara said:”We’ve always said we want to do all that we can to help lawyers facing fee cuts. We’ve spoken at length with them and made changes to our initial plan as a result.
“But this government is dealing with an unprecedented financial challenge and the Ministry of Justice has no choice but to significantly reduce the amount it spends each year.
“Our final package does mean fee reductions, but we’ve staggered them to try and ease their impact. We’ve just announced £9 million has been made available to fund interim payments for solicitors in long-running cases, which will vastly improve cashflow.”