The government has made clear its agenda to destroy the legal aid system. This latest round of cuts will deny access to justice to an unprecedentedly large proportion of people. As lawyers committed to justice and equality, we in turn must declare our own agenda: to resolutely build an alternative to austerity, within and beyond the legal sector. Now as never before, we must forge a unified, sector-wide trade union capable of standing up for us and our clients.
Towards a better understanding of the problem of disunity
The chief problem faced by workers in the legal sector is our disunity in the face of threats to our jobs and working conditions. This is partly based on a general failure by those employed in the legal sector to conceive of ourselves as workers capable of taking collective action to enforce our working conditions. The Government has exploited and encouraged this disunity in order to divide and conquer our profession.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) recently confirmed a second 8.75% cut to criminal solicitors’ fees. Crime duty contracts are also set to fall from 1,600 to 527. These cuts appear all the more gratuitous when one considers that the LAA budget has already been reduced to within touching distance of Chris Grayling’s original 2017 target, two years ahead of schedule.
Sensing the growing militancy of the criminal bar, however, the MoJ declared that criminal advocacy fees would remain un-cut ‘for the time being’. Those working at the bar have been granted a momentary respite while the MoJ focuses its fire on solicitors.
The leadership of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) had reacted quickly to the General Election with a ballot for industrial action. 96% of those balloted came out in favour of taking action to oppose the Government’s plans. Since that promising start, the CBA leadership has inexplicably decided to back down. In a short-sighted and supine statement that has been widely condemned by members across its own organisation, the CBA has hung solicitors out to dry.
Towards a strategy of sector-wide industrial action
Faced with this level of infighting and self-interest, any attempt to foster workplace unity across the profession will be an uphill struggle. The process of unifying legal workers of all stripes will require us to navigate the minefield of anti-worker and anti-trade union legislation left over from the Thatcher and Major Conservative Governments. We will require creativity in our approach to industrial action, and diligence if we are to surmount the stringent, legalistic requirements of balloting.
Some commentators have suggested that barristers are better placed to take industrial action, as solicitors who go on strike will only hurt their own clients, not the courts. But even if this questionable premise proves true, it surely provides further evidence that action by barristers is essential for the defence of the profession as a whole.
Let us make no mistake: the junior bar will suffer from the CBA leadership’s rejection of its members’ willingness to take action. So too will criminal solicitors. And so too, of course, will the growing hordes of unrepresented criminal clients. Something needs to be done to combat the cynicism and myopia embodied in the CBA statement.
The policy architects of the bipartisan consensus in favour of austerity are terrified that workers might organise themselves if left to their own devices. That is why successive governments, both Tory and Labour, have developed stringent mechanisms for regulating the supply of labour.
It is time for us to hold the Government to their own mantra of deregulation, and demand negotiations for a collective bargain to govern the whole profession. As workers working together in the legal sector, we can best pursue this demand by forming a sector-wide trade union.
Towards a Legal Workers’ Trade Union
A group of legal workers calling itself the Legal Workers’ Trade Union (LWTU) has recently started to organise a network of workers committed to a sector-wide trade union. We have been using this simple LWTU banner to encourage legal sector workers to sign up to Unite the Union. We chose Unite as the central plank of our strategy because of the Union’s existing presence within the sector, and because of the potential to link up with workers in other sectors taking industrial action against austerity.
The key at this stage is to get solicitors and barristers, paralegals and admin staff to build collective strategies from within a unified branch structure. The legal sector has too many representative bodies: we need a single roof under which to organise. Unite is that roof.
In these dire days, those still fighting for a fairer legal system must recognise that an attack on one is an attack on all. The CBA leadership would have done well to act out that simple premise and stand in defence of criminal solicitors. Faced with the unrepresentative leadership of bodies like the CBA, barristers and all legal sector workers would all do well to join Unite and start going to branch meetings. It is in those meetings that we will forge our collective defence of the justice system.