Cuts to legal aid risk its collapse
a guest post by Pete Speller, who blogs at the dead goat – where this originally appeared.
Access to legal representation in the UK is a right, one that won’t be completely abolished without a serious outcry (I would hope at least), but the quality of that representation is something that is seriously under threat. Solicitors working in legal aid have had to swallow a bitter pill for the second time this year after being told the Legal Services Commission, the body that governs legal aid in the UK, doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills. Cue the crying of “why should I care that some toff lawyer cannot afford another jacuzzi in his second home in Toulouse” or “I don’t want taxpayer’s money going to defend some knife-wielding immigrant gang-member hoodie scumbag”. These are misconceptions about the legal aid system.
First of all, can we all just forget the myth that all lawyers are paid vast sums of money and are simply intent on squeezing every last penny they can from people in return for doing little work. Next we need to recognise the two different types of lawyers we have in the UK that work on legal aid; solicitors and barristers (aka counsel) – barristers are the ones with the wigs and robes – and most work extremely long hours. And lastly legal aid exists to allow access to legal representation to those that cannot afford it, and is used to represent people in cases of childcare, sexual harassment, employment tribunals, domestic abuse as well as crime. It is not about tax money defending criminals.
The problems with legal aid are three-fold; legal aid fees are unbalanced, cuts and mismanagement by the Labour government has left the Legal Services Commission in a situation where it cannot work efficiently and both the previous and current governments are very hostile towards complaints made by solicitors. The net result of this at worst could be the collapse of the legal aid system, but more likely will simply mean that only inexperienced and junior solicitors will work in legal aid as there will be very little money to be made from it. This will mean that the most vulnerable will be denied access to decent legal representation.
Law is often seen as a high-paying profession with many solicitors and barristers earning huge sums of money. In some cases this is true, private tax and corporate law for example, though not often in legal aid. Legal aid is charged on a system of hourly fixed rates which have not risen in more than 10 years and when compared to the rate of inflation actually amount to a year-on-year cut of 2.5%. This means that over the last decade there has been a 25% cut in the value of remuneration for legal aid while costs have soared. Many solicitors no longer offer a legal aid service and those that do are struggling on a month by month basis to survive. And there are more changes being made to legal aid fees, particularly with regard to childcare.
The previous Labour government, under Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, took the running of the Legal Services Commission in-house, integrating it into the Ministry of Justice and made a large number of crucial staff who process bills and payments to solicitors redundant. This resulted in massive delays in payments, further compounding solicitors’ cash-flow crisis. This in turn has meant that many firms that rely on bringing in money from legal aid work have not been paid money owed since February this year and are teetering on the brink of collapse.
In addition, the new Tory government is looking to further cut funding on services which are currently available by 50%, the implications of which will be devastating. In the field of childcare there has been a massive increase in demand following the Baby P case, yet there is less money and fewer solicitors able to meet the demand and so more children are not getting the help they need. The overall result of the delays in payment, the low-fees and fewer and fewer solicitors offering legal aid means that cases such as Baby P’s will be more common.
When complaints about the legal aid fees system have been brought forward before, they are shouted down by further touting of the myth of the overpaid lawyer. To prove the point, the government has in the past released figures to demonstrate that legal aid lawyers are in fact very well paid – they provide the annual earnings of the top five Queen’s Councils (a high ranking barrister) who earn c. £500,000 annually from legal aid, therefore all solicitors must be earning the same. This is simply not true and the fact of the matter is that the situation will only get worse if the Tory government goes ahead with it’s planned 50% cuts in legal aid spending, a LOT worse. Legal aid will end up being the domain of junior solicitors and the poor will lose out on representation by senior and experienced solicitors. The impact will mean that the most vulnerable in our society – children and victims of abuse – are left without help.
Mr Worrier will be fine! One must keep up just a little Tartan Pimpernel mystique.
As I say Adam, I’m not terrifically au fait with the exact nature of developments in Scotland – in particular what stage we’re at visa vie the setting or revising of legal aid budgets for the imminent future. Will keep an eye out for devolved details.
Thanks, Mr Worrier (or do you prefer to be known by your real name)?
I nearly added a disclaimer to that effect at the top, before I re-posted, and in retrospect should have done.
If you fancy writing us a piece on legal aid in Scotland, as soon as info becomes clearer (or, as we’ve said before, anything that takes your fancy) then this would be most excellent.
Since this is Bright Green ~Scotland~, just one or two wee points of clarification.
The Legal Services Commission not the UK-wide body, but merely deals with these matters in England and Wales. Up north, the relevant body is the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Moreover, the English and Welsh distinction between barristers and solicitors is not precisely of a piece with Scottish advocates and solicitors (and we ought not to exclude solicitor advocates from our calculations, these days). The distinction isn’t just in the name, but potentially has implications for working practices – and legal aid payments.
Although I’m no expert and can’t vouch for the Scottish situation in any substantive or shockingly revelatory detail, I do know that Scots legal aid budgets are set by Scottish Ministers. As a result, there is a devolved discussion to be had on these matters, in the context of Westminster fiscal slicing.
Otherwise, Pete Speller’s point is both germane and serious.
What I would say is that even if lawyers, on the whole, did receive extremely high wages, that would still not be grounds for cutting legal aid.
As you very rightly point out, the purpose of legal aid is to provide access to legal representation for people who would not otherwise be able to access it. That means paying lawyers’ time, so that they spend time on cases that would not otherwise get legal representation. Basically, it means paying lawyers’ time at cost.
It’s no good saying “because lawyers earn lots of money, we’ll only pay them minimum wage for legal aid”, even if it is in fact true that lawyers earn lots. That will never encourage a lawyer to spend adequate time on a case that requires adequate time to be spent on it. When child custody cases are rushed, and information isn’t processed properly, and evidence isn’t assembled properly, it’s children and domestic abuse victims/survivors who lose out because they don’t get represented properly, and that means that, as you point out, preventable child abuse situations will become more common.
(Sure in a situation without massive pay disparities, I’d be less inclined to make this argument. But in this situation, I think we don’t even need to defend the lawyer who earns less and works long hours. We just need to argue that that’s what lawyers cost.)