Tested: Gove faces MP grilling as barrister vote triggers panic in court system
Michael Gove was facing his first major emergency as justice secretary today after barristers voted to join solicitors in industrial action.
The decision was announced just minutes before the justice secretary was due to attend a grilling by MPs on the justice committee.
"I'm disappointed members of the Criminal Bar Association voted to take action, although it's interesting the vote was closer than anticipated," Gove told the committee.
"Action wasn't necessary at this time."
Gove adopted a markedly different and more conciliatory tone to his predecessor Chris Grayling, who branded legal aid lawyers 'fat cats'.
"I don't think those who have expressed concerns about legal aid are motivated by self-interest," the new justice secretary said.
But he stood firm on the need for legal aid cuts, saying: "It was the case that too much taxpayer money was spent on legal aid. There had to be reductions."
Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) voted by 55% to 45% to adopt a policy of no new work and no-returns, in an industrial action which is likely to bring the courts to a standstill.
The action is an unusual example of barristers and solicitors working together, despite efforts from government officials to divide the groups with a more generous approach adopted towards barristers.
The CBA leadership pushed strongly for members to refrain from the action, but members stood firm.
Gove indicated that he would work with the leadership in a bid to stop the action before it began.
"Even though there's been a vote on preparedness to take action, I still think it's possible for the department to continue to talk, not just to the CBA but representatives of the profession overall, about meeting their concerns," he said.
"It’s a vote. It's a vote that indicates preparedness to take action. Action may follow, but in the meantime we'll continue to talk."
It is unclear if Gove meant to include solicitors in the phrase "representatives of the profession overall", but the fact they were not explicitly mentioned suggests he has no plans to backtrack on cuts to legal aid fees.
The justice secretary may not have as much time as he believes, however. A statement by the CBA revealed some barristers were already planning to adopt a no-returns policy.
The vote means barristers will come out to support solicitors facing 8.75% cuts to their legal aid fees, which they say would make legal aid work untenable.
That comes ahead of further cuts next year and administrative changes which heavily favour large solicitors companies and threaten to put high street firms out of business.
One solicitor told Politics.co.uk: "We have experienced cut after cut after cut. So long as we have been able to continue to undertake the work and continue to provide a good quality service to our clients we haven't complained.
"But this latest cut, coupled with cuts due in January 2016, means that in 99.9% of cases solicitors undertaking publicly-funded criminal defence work will only be able to do so at commercial loss. It really is as simple as that."
The decision means barristers will not take on any new legal aid work once it comes into force, but it is the no-returns policy which could really bring the crown courts to their knees.
No-returns is a goodwill policy where barristers travel all over the country to fill in for their colleagues where there is a diary clash. These efforts are necessary every day and the court system is expected to fall apart without them.
The initiative comes amid chaos in the magistrates courts due to the solicitors' industrial action.
The CBA is now expected to issue a protocol for the no-returns policy and to suggest plans for the rescheduling of cases to avoid clashes.