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Criminal lawyers treated with 'contempt and arrogance' by government over unpaid committals

Hearings to be phased out but solicitors continue working for free

12 December 2011

Franklin Sinclair, senior partner of Britain’s biggest criminal law firm, has condemned the MoJ’s decision to phase out committal hearings from April 2012 but continue not paying solicitors for the work involved.

The senior partner of Tuckers said the government should be “totally and utterly ashamed” of its decision not to pay.

“In the 29 years I have been in practice, this is the most disgraceful step a government has ever taken against a legal aid lawyer,” Sinclair said. “They have treated us with contempt and arrogance.”

He said the decision on committal fees had “almost ruined” any relationship the government could expect to have with its suppliers. “I do not believe Ken Clarke knows what we are being asked to do.”

As an example, Sinclair said the firm had not been paid for four court hearings on behalf of a young man in Wigan with mental health problems, charged with child abduction.

He estimated that Tuckers was losing around £10,000 a month through lost committal fees.

The Law Society launched a judicial review when the MoJ decided to stop paying fees for legally aided committal proceedings in October this year. The next hearing is expected in February 2012.

“If the judicial review is successful and the decision is found to be unlawful, they will have to pay us,” Sinclair said.

He added that abolishing committals was, in itself, an “absolutely sensible step”.

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, said the society instituted its judicial review because it was “wholly unreasonable” for the government to expect defence lawyers to work “and not get paid a penny for it”.

He went on: “I wonder if the MoJ would ask prison officers or any other employee or contractor under their ambit to undertake unpaid work? This announcement does not change that.

“Had the government taken the rational approach of abolishing committals as a way of removing the need for the work, and thus the need to pay a fee, we would not have had to take this step.

“Now firms will have to adapt to yet another significant change to the way they work, when the ministry could have implemented these inextricably linked steps together.”

Announcing the phasing out of committals in the Commons, Clarke said: “More than ten years ago, committal proceedings were abolished in indictable-only offences, and replaced by a new ‘sending’ procedure.

“The government has decided that the time has come to complete that reform by extending it to offences triable either way. This will enable the Crown Court to manage such cases from an earlier stage, and facilitate efforts to encourage defendants who intend to plead guilty to do so sooner.”

The justice secretary said the change would be effected by bringing into force schedule 3 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

“Following the practice adopted when the existing sending procedure in section 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was first introduced, commencement will initially be limited to certain geographical areas, which will be announced later. Subject to a satisfactory assessment of the first phase, the intention is to complete implementation over the next year.”

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