URGENT action is needed to tackle problems with law student funding, the Lord Chancellor's advisers have warned.
A sharp drop in the number of discretionary grants awarded by local authorities could pose a “significant threat” to the widespread availability of general legal services.
The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (Aclec) is calling on central and local government to treat the lack of grant help “as a matter of sharp and urgent concern”.
In its annual report, Aclec says the burden of training cannot be left to a cash-strapped profession. Larger firms which can offer financial help to students usually specialise in commercial matters, so do not offer general training in areas of law relevant to people's everyday needs, such as personal injury, matrimonial, housing and welfare.
The committee also worries that cutting back on student grants will damage progress in opening access to the law as a career. Alistair Shaw, Aclec secretary, says it is wrong to make entry to the legal profession the preserve of wealthy people's children.
Aclec's comments are welcomed by Fiona Boyle, chair of the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG). “These are exactly the same points we have been making since we first lobbied Parliament. I just hope people will listen to them because they haven't listened to us,” she says.
“We feel like we have been banging our heads against a brick wall. It's nice to see that other people agree with what we have been saying.”
The TSG's national committee was due to discuss the issue of local authority grants at the weekend. It is considering whether to call for them to be made mandatory.
London solicitor Jaswinder Gill has already highlighted inconsistencies in student funding by taking local authorities to court. “I totally agree with the conclusions in this report. Funding is a huge problem which must be addressed immediately,” he says.
Gill, of JR Jones, who has settled 45 cases on discretionary local authority awards, says councils are increasingly falling into the trap of leaving themselves open to the challenge of judicial review.
“The way things work at the moment is arbitrary and unfair. It comes down to where you live,” he says.
Aclec also says it will be studying the plight of the increasing number of student solicitors and barristers who complete courses but cannot find pupillages or training places.