“In the current political climate, we are unlikely to see a radical change in the delivery of public legal services. So what can we do?”
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Marc Bloomfield
I wish I had a gown. Not a wig (too hot and ridiculous), but a gown that I could throw down at the feet of the justice minister – just like the French. As I write, nurses, teachers and lawyers are striking in France over changes to their pensions. They say the changes will mean they have to work longer for less. At a press conference called by the French justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, the congregating lawyers ‘downed tools’ in a defiant gesture – tossing their gowns over the heads of colleagues to land in a heap before her.
The most recent UK equivalent was the gathering of 200 legal aid lawyers in central London on 9 October 2019.1There will be further follow-up meetings on the culture of refusal by the LAA. We heard compelling evidence of a widespread culture of refusal at the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). It raised questions of good faith and left us wondering if the LAA is still fit for purpose. The mood of the meeting was for change.
The LAA needs to be replaced with an independent body that is localised and can respond to the needs of the community.
My view, backed up by my research in Australia and Canada, is that the LAA needs to be replaced with an independent body that is localised and can respond to the needs of the community. The current expanse of legal aid deserts only goes to prove that it is failing in its duty to the public. What is needed in Wales or Suffolk is different from what is needed in London. The remit could encompass a broad range of functions: not just delivery of legal services, but training and development, retention and recruitment, and research that will ensure sustainability of legal aid. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, we are unlikely to see a radical change in the delivery of public legal services. So what can we do?
At the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) conference in October 2019, Jess Phillips MP said: ‘I genuinely believe lawyers are the rock stars who are going to save the world.’ It was at the time of the prorogation case, and I think Jess had a certain Supreme Court rock star in mind, but she had a point: we need to challenge this government – by any means possible.
We can start by challenging the decision-making of the LAA. So, get to know the contract and the regulations inside out. Appeal decisions. And, I know it’s a bit of a plug for the LAG Legal Aid Handbook (the 2020/21 edition will be out soon), but buy one: it will be worth it.
Let’s start a campaign for a more streamlined legal aid payment scheme. When I see a client, why should the amount I am paid differ depending on whether they are losing their home, their job, their family or their liberty? Having so many different schemes makes legal aid overly complex and helps divide the profession.
A payment scheme that increases the rate of pay would also be very nice, especially as there hasn’t been a rise for 24 years. We are public sector workers – like the French lawyers – but we are not seen in the same way as nurses and teachers. We need to work on our image as legal aid lawyers.
The way we have been made to contract with the LAA has forced us to work in silos. Our clients are falling through the gaps in legal provision. We need to be able to provide advice and representation holistically and in a multi-disciplinary way. The present tendering scheme needs to change.
As we await the outcome of the LAPG survey on the LAA’s decision-making, let’s focus on the accountability of the agency. The Public Accounts Committee has been thorough in its investigation of the court reform programme. It could do the same with the LAA.
And, finally, as The Style Council said in 1985, ‘unity is powerful’. Join a union, down tools – just like the French – and show our solidarity and defiance.
 
1     There will be further follow-up meetings on the culture of refusal by the LAA. »

About the author(s)

Description: Sue James
Sue James is CEO of LAG. She was previously director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law...