22 February 2011 | By Laura Manning
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No fat cats here as swingeing cuts to the legal aid system augur poor prospects for practitioners and legal impotence for those unable to afford representation.
In the past year the Government has started swinging its newly sharpened spending axe at legal aid, a system that has already been sliced so close to the bone that the new cuts may just make it too fragile to continue.
Several commentators have taken to blasting the legal profession and ’fat cat lawyers’, believing the rich will reap all of the gain and none of the pain, overlooking the fact that legal aid lawyers are no more than a bunch of emaciated strays with their bones sticking out.
Salaries have plummeted to the bottom of the public sector league, with trainee solicitors bringing in, at most, £16,650, while trainee barristers see no more than £10,000 topping up their rather miserable bank accounts. This has forced many aspiring legal aid lawyers to question whether there is any point in continuing along the legal aid career path.
“In life, you have to make sacrifices sometimes,” says an aspiring criminal barrister at the University of Bristol. “No, I won’t be driving a Bentley or living in Mayfair, but that’s fine. There are people out there who are all entitled to justice and I want to help them get it.”
However, the Government’s proposals have made many fear that access to justice will no longer be a right, with the growing list of drastic cuts to legal aid including the news that anyone with assets of more than £1,000 will have to pay at least £100 towards their legal costs, and the fact that some areas may be slashed completely from the scope of public funding.
Under the current system, anyone with assets of less than £8,000 qualifies for legal aid, with those worth up to £3,000 paying nothing. Those above this figure are only expected to make a contribution.
Legal aid, which has been present in the UK since 1949, has certainly begun to show its age recently, becoming increasingly bloated. Costs have swollen to around £2.1bn a year, with legal aid costs per head of population in England and Wales coming in at a cool £38 per head. Compare this with Ireland or Australia, for example, which show much healthier cost levels at £8 and £9 per head respectively, and it puts the radical cuts into some perspective.
The majority of the cuts seem to be a push to discourage a ’culture of litigation’ through reducing the number of civil law cases by around 547,000 per year, encouraging a more inquisitorial approach and cutting some £350m off the legal aid budget.
And, to further twist the knife, there is a possible 10 per cent cut to legal aid lawyers’ fees on the cards. Set this next to the fact that the Legal Services Commission (LSC) has scrapped its multimillion-pound training contracts grants scheme, which enabled it to provide awards of up to £20,000 to legal aid firms to pay Legal Practice Course (LPC) fees and trainee solicitor salaries, and the prospect of future legal aid careers for aspiring lawyers looks rather bleak.
With many would-be legal aid lawyers already knee-deep in debt after funding their hugely expensive education, it is little wonder that some are looking at other options for their career paths.
Fears for the future
Louise Duckett, a paralegal in the family law department of a small Kent firm who is about to begin her training contract, fears for her job security. “The problem is that once you get into a job like this, you can’t imagine going anywhere else,” she says. “But I’m being realistic because I know that after two years I may not have another job. Moving out of legal aid is something I have to consider because there may not be any jobs for me.”
The knock-on effect of the LSC severing funds is a lack of training contracts and pupillages, which has resulted in a cohort of would-be legal aid lawyers resorting to beginning their careers as paralegals. Duckett believes that some legal aid practices will alter their set-ups by seeking to employ a majority of paralegals alongside a single solicitor to save money. “This structure seems to be becoming more fashionable,” she adds.
As with many would-be legal aid lawyers, Duckett’s main concern about the swelling number of limitations being imposed on legal aid lies with the vulnerable people who rely
on it the most.
The restriction on the number of cases firms are allowed to take on has meant a growing number of people are being left in limbo, with Duckett admitting that towards the end of the year around 20 “each month” were left waiting for representation at her firm alone.
So the result of the proposals could be a battalion of individuals fighting single-handedly against the state while clogging up the courts with a tsunami of litigation. For lawyers, the cuts will likely have the effect of a 50 per cent reduction in the amount of work available, with it no longer being viable for firms in rural areas to undertake legal aid work at all. Despite this, Duckett does not so much fear the probable lack of work as much as the fact that people who do not understand the process will be thrown onto the mercy of the courts and in all likelihood subjected to injustice.
But once all the cuts are imposed the biggest issue will be the level of competition for the limited work remaining. And despite there being a few noble souls willing to remain in the field, the knock-on effect of a lack of work must inevitably be that a limited number of lawyers is needed.
As with Duckett, Tim Dunn, an LPC student on the legal aid route at the College of Law, is resigned to the fact that he will need “to keep my options open to the very last hour”, describing training contracts as “like gold dust” at the moment.
Dunn currently works in a part-time capacity for the Ministry of Justice and aspires to work in a criminal law firm due to his background as a police officer. But in terms of the effect the proposed cuts would have on him, he unexpectedly takes a positive view. “Where other people see cuts and job losses, I see potential and opportunities,” he states. “We’re still going
to need legal aid at the end of the day. It’s not going to go away - just change form. We all have to take things on the chin and soldier on. Things will improve eventually.”
Carry on regardless
Luckily for those relying on legal aid, there are some selfless souls left whose altruistic ideals mean that lighter pay packets will not deter them from defending the true victims of the cuts. But despite this determination among a few aspiring legal aid lawyers, their ability to deliver will depend on them being able to fund themselves or be funded. In reality, few firms will be viable in this regard when many of their clients lose their eligibility for state funding.
The harsh reality is that, the more the Government squeezes rates, the greater will be the reduction in the supply of lawyers across the country. And although some students will join the growing pool of paralegals in the hope of gaining training contracts at a later date, many will just have to look elsewhere to survive.
“It’s such rewarding work and I’d hate to put someone off it, but [students] have to go in being realistic and realise it’s going to change - at the moment nobody knows what’s going to happen,” concludes Duckett.
The perilous path to a career in legal aid in the age of austerity
Name: Stephanie Orme
Firm: A small Brixton-based criminal firm
College: College of Law, Guildford
Job title: Paralegal
What’s your planned route to becoming a legal aid lawyer? I began working as a paralegal for this firm on an unpaid basis after leaving college six months ago, and started paid work at the beginning of this year. My plan is to work as a paralegal until I’m accredited as a police station representative, and once I’ve completed that I’ll start my training contract.
Why did you choose to become a legal aid lawyer? I never had a massive interest in commercial or corporate law. It wasn’t about chasing profits for me. I wanted to deal with
people and issues with a human interest.
What do you think the effect of the cuts will be? It will depend. My firm, for example, is relatively new and we’ve secured a fairly lucrative contract to provide legal aid for the next couple of years. Firms just have to keep up with things, make sure they bill properly and realise there’ll be a lot more competition for work.
Do you think legal aid firms can survive? If you’re adaptable, keep your eyes open and your head up, I think it’s possible to survive - it’s just a case of changing your attitude.
Have you noticed any changes since the first of the cuts came in? There’s a lot of talk about the difficulties people are having staying in work and competition is definitely more intense. I have to say, I’m glad I’m not a criminal barrister at this time.
Do you fear for your job security? I feel fortunate that I have a job and hopefully it will stick. But I’m not concerned about the level of work, as there’ll always be people who needrepresenting and we’ll always get paid for that.
What do you think about the proposed cuts to fees? It will make competition for training contracts and being kept on afterwards a bit harder, but personally I’m not paid per client and therefore I’m okay for the moment.
The reported average salary for legal aid lawyers is reported to be one of the lowest in the public sector. Does this trouble you? Job satisfaction’s more important to me than how much I’m going to earn, or even job security. I’d rather pursue this with no guarantee of what will happen in five years’ time than go into a different area of law that I don’t have the heart for.
How do you view the proposed cuts in general? It’s shocking and appalling, and it’s the poorest people who are going to suffer most.
What are your top tips for a student wanting to pursue a career in legal aid? So long as you have the passion and can demonstrate that through experience and knowledge, it’s worth having a go. Talk to people who are doing it already and ensure you understand the commitment and risk involved. It’s not a job you can just sail into, so you need to get experience, and I mean all experience - mine wasn’t solely legal. I worked with prostitutes through a charity in my home town. I was working with people who were trying to befriend prostitutes and mediate between them and the police and various agencies, or sit with them if they had to go to court.