A TOWN’S court system was thrown into chaos when solicitors declined to represent clients as part of a legal aid dispute.
Wrexham Magistrates Court witnessed clients refusing to make a plea without legal representation yesterday and their cases sent for trial with the Crown having to enter not guilty pleas on their behalf.
According to solicitors, the dispute has been caused by the court not responding to requests for legal aid on the day of a case.
The results was that minor shoplifting offences that could have been dealt with in minutes have not been resolved and the cost to clients and the public is mounting up.
Clients were told they ran the risk of having to pay full costs if they eventually plead guilty, having missed the first opportunity to do so.
Matthew Ellis, representing the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “The costs will rise significantly after trial and the full amount would have to be paid.”
GHP solicitor Euros Jones was one of the first to make an application to have a client’s case adjourned, as he had received no response over legal aid.
He told the district judge Anita Price: “I make an application to adjourn for legal aid to be granted. We are forced to take this action. No-one else in this court room would do the work and be paid later on.”
Catherine Jagger, of Gittins McDonald, was another solicitor who attempted to adjourn a case, as she had received no response over legal aid. She said: “I have tried to liaise with the Caernarfon office but they haven’t responded.”
The district judge refused to adjourn cases, telling solicitors: “I’m not going to adjourn because all parties have a duty to move proceedings forward. I am not going to comment on legal aid issues. We have to make sure cases take place expositionally, regardless of legal aid.”
Speaking outside court, Abrahams solicitor Andy Holliday said: “Before everything was centralised in Caernarfon about six months ago, we used to get a decision over legal aid on the day and it is in the court’s guidelines that we should get a decision on the day.
“Effectively legal aid is the only way we get paid, and we’ve been working on trust, but recently there have been more and more refusals from the court for spurious reasons and we’ve not been getting paid. We’ve been in regular contact with them over this but it’s not been resolved so we’ve taken this action.
“Any other branch of work or self-employment, you wouldn’t do a job and then discuss the possibility of getting paid afterwards, but that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve got bills to pay like anyone else.”
Allington Hughes solicitor Emma Simoes said all the Wrexham based solicitors were “united” in the action, adding: “Why should we do hours and hours of work with no guarantee of being paid?”
Mr Holliday said clients fully supported their decision. He said: “They are steadfast behind us, very understanding and fully supportive, as seen in court today. All we want is the court to come to a solution. All it would take is a fax, an email, or for someone to be in court on the day to make a decision.”
He added solicitors did not know how long the situation would continue, adding: “A similar situation happened in Liverpool recently. Eventually adjournments were granted and they now have someone in court to make decisions on the day.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The impact of any so-called solicitor ‘boycott’ has been minimal and the vast majority of courts are operating normally. Legal aid lawyers are still available to anyone facing criminal investigation that needs them.
“We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and even after reform it will still be generous at around £1.5 billion a year.
“At a time of an unprecedented financial challenge we had no choice but to reduce the amount MoJ spends each year.”