As lawyers consider unprecedented strike action over changes to Legal Aid, Paul Kavanagh, criminal lawyer and director at Gildeas Solicitors, argues that this is an issue which affects everyone
A STRIKE by lawyers would be a dramatic last resort. I don’t believe it has ever happened before in Scotland but it shows the tremendous anger and depth of feeling among the profession about proposed changes to Legal Aid.
The public’s perception of solicitors is no doubt one of affluent, middle-class people with money to burn who are simply looking out for themselves all the time. The reality is certainly far from this.
Criminal lawyers have a genuine desire to help people, give them access to justice and stand up for their rights in court.
They do this in the sheriff courts for a maximum rate of £76 an hour. That might sound a lot but remember out of that total a lawyer will have to cover his or her office costs: admin staff; heating; lighting; rates; national insurance; tax and other overheads. A good tradesman will actually take home more per hour than a criminal lawyer.
I recently heard that a young solicitor working in private practice calculated that she would be better off on the minimum wage. We aren’t doing it for the money – it’s because we believe in the job we do. The Legal Aid changes proposed by the Scottish Government and so opposed by the Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) will make that job much more difficult and deny justice to ordinary people.
They want anyone with more than £68 a week disposable income to contribute to their Legal Aid bill. Totally innocent and later found to be totally innocent at trial? It doesn’t matter, you’ll still have to pay. This could include people on disability living allowance or other benefits and people on minimum wage. All sorts of folk on low income will struggle to get free legal help in future. Without doubt it’s an injustice.
The EBA is also rightly objecting to proposals to get lawyers to collect these contributions from their own clients, rather than the Legal Aid Board. The bond of trust between a criminal lawyer, particularly and his or her client, is a vital one and turning a lawyer into a debt collector in this instance will not be productive to that relationship and therefore the administration of justice.
How would strike action take place? It could be a single day where no court work was carried out and the justice system was temporarily paralysed. It could take place over several days.
It would be a protest that gained national media coverage but it would also be a double-edged sword. Lawyers may be seen to be letting their clients down by such actions. It would affect their current and future business and indeed the courts, and that is something all solicitors take very seriously.
It would appear the EBA has the Law Society of Scotland on its side but strike action could in theory bring down punishment from them.
I remember several years ago a group of solicitors were addressed by the Law Society over a contentious issue and we were told the only recourse open to us was industrial action. They then informed us that industrial action could bring charges of professional misconduct against individuals.
I understand that savings have to be made in these tough economic times but there must be other ways this can be achieved.
Will this threat of strike action have any affect on what the Scottish Government is planning? I doubt it. If they had a smaller majority at Holyrood they might. It seems though that they misunderstand the depth of feeling against these moves, even the Justice Committee asked them to think again, but it looks likely they will refuse to review anything.
Meanwhile, Evening News readers may be sitting at home and thinking this won’t affect me, I’m a law-abiding citizen. There are around 2.5 million criminal court cases in the UK every year, that includes simple speeding cases. This could affect anyone.
Law strike action
THE Edinburgh Bar Association has taken the unprecedented step of voting in principle to take industrial action over further proposed changes by the Scottish Government to criminal legal aid.
The EBA has more than 100 members, and there were no dissenting voices when those present at a meeting on Monday voted unanimously to take strike action if their concerns are not addressed. The Glasgow Bar Association meets today to vote on industrial action.