Solicitors and probation service staff have begun 48 hours of protests at cuts to legal aid and the privatisation of court services.
The legal workers picketed outside courts across the region and rallied at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle, voicing fears for the future of their professions.
Solicitor Lewis Pearson, who acted as a local Law Society representative at a steering group earlier this year, said the way probation service staff were being treated was “absolutely disgraceful,” while the cuts to legal aid could see the closure of scores of law firms.
“We support the probation service staff because they are hard-working, conscientious professionals and they are being dealt with extremely shabbily,” said Mr Pearson, of Pearson Caulfield, on Newgate Street in Newcastle.
“And in the long term these legal aid changes will probably mean only seven firms of solicitors able to do legal aid work from Berwick in the north, throughout Northumberland and down to Newcastle itself – down from around 50.
“There is no justice unless you have access to it.”
Trish Mytton, of Ben Hoare Bell, which has branches in Byker, Gateshead and Sunderland, said the impression that the strike was “fat cat lawyers” out for money was far from the truth.
“We’re not ‘fat cat lawyers’,” she said. “Nobody does this for the money.
“We do a huge amount of work in areas of law where the whole point is to help people who wouldn’t have help otherwise.
“We’re not looking for huge amounts of money, just enough to run a business capable of helping people – and after this there won’t be many people able to do that.”
The Government’s proposals could see more than 60% of the probabtion service’s work placed into private hands, with the National Probation Service sliced in two. What remains of the existing service would look after the most serious offenders with private companies and charities helping low to medium-risk criminals stay out of trouble.
Meanwhile Justice Secretary Chris Grayling hopes to slash £215m from his department’s annual budget for legal aid by cutting the fees paid to solicitors.
The Ministry of Justice maintains that the UK’s legal aid budget of about £2bn a year makes it “one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world”, and insists it will “remain very generous even after reform”.
The Ministry will today release figures on the number of criminals who go on to re-offend to back its case for its probation reforms.
It will say that in Northumbria 1,246 offenders had 50 or more previous convictions.