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 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.
*It was rightly pointed out on Bright Green Scotland that the LSC governs legal aid in England and Wales, not in Scotland where it is the Scottish Legal Aid Board