The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCSSA) announced “overwhelming support” for the move after a poll of its members returned a 95 per cent in favour of industrial action.
Warning of criminal cases collapsing in “chaos” if a defendant does not have a legal representative, LCSSA president Hesham Puri said: “Our goodwill has run out and will no longer prop up a broken justice system.”
The action is set to begin on May 25 with burglary cases, before being escalated to other offences over time.
The LCSSA announcement comes a month after the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) began its own industrial action, refusing to take on last-minute “returns” work, in an ongoing dispute over Legal Aid funding.
The government sought to defuse the row in March with an announcement of an additional £135 million-a-year on Legal Aid.
But it faced CBA claims of an “underwhelming” response to the justice crisis, while closer inspection of the deal revealed criminal defence solicitors would only be looking at a nine per cent pay increase, rather than the expected 15 per cent.
A bulletin to LCSSA members on Tuesday night suggested solicitors are only contractually obliged to carry out duty work – taking on defendants at police stations and court who are unrepresented – and they are entitled to refuse work that is uneconomic.
“The rejection of instructions on the basis that the work is not properly remunerated or cannot be properly resourced given the funding available under the Legal Aid Agency scheme is compliant with the principles set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority”, it said.
“It’s a matter for you to establish the nature of the work that’s not adequately remunerated under the contract.”
The lawyers’ group said cases of burglary, assault on emergency workers, stalking, harassment, and violence would be affected by the action, and could “see cases in magistrates’ courts collapsing with defendants unable to access a lawyer”.
“The verdict is clear, our words must be backed by action”, said Mr Puri. “Defence solicitors will say no to low-paid cases like burglary where they, frankly, end up paying for the ‘privilege’ to work.
“Our goodwill has run out and will no longer prop up a broken justice system. The action will, inevitably, cause yet more havoc.
“Members have shown in the survey they refuse to paper over the cracks, working through lunch, picking up cases at the last minute. They’re ready to fight for fairness as hard as they fight for their clients.”
The LCSSA announcement comes a day after a damning report by the Criminal Justice Joint Inspection found parts of the justice system were underfunded before the “shock” of the pandemic and are still struggling to recover.
CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC called the report “excoriating” and accused the government of failing to “right the sinking ship that it holed years ago before the pandemic”, while Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, said “solicitors will continue to leave the profession in droves” without proper investment from government.
Giving evidence at the House of Lords on Wednesday morning, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon said the lack of legal representation is a major problem in criminal justice that has “emerged starkly in the last year”.
“More and more, cases are not going ahead because either the prosecution or the defence have not been able to find an advocate to deal with the case”, he said.
He said the government’s tough rhetoric on crime, pledging to prosecute more criminals, will need to be matched by “profound” reform for the system to cope.
“ As we read in the papers every day, the political ambition is to have many many more people in the Crown Court”, he said.
“My question is, who’s going to try, who’s going to prosecute them and who’s going to defend them if there aren’t some pretty profound steps taken to enhance the capacity at every stage?”
In response to the LCSSA’s announcement, an MoJ spokesperson said: “We are increasing investment in criminal legal aid by £135 million a year, including a 15 percent pay rise for solicitors working in police stations, magistrates’ courts and youth courts.”
The consultation on Legal Aid funding closes next month.