Young Legal Aid Lawyers
“The legal profession should be genuinely open to all. What concerns us is the painfully slow progress of any meaningful change in this area.”
Social mobility is back on the agenda. In recent months, access to the legal profession (or the lack of it) has generated significant press coverage, from the extortionate costs of qualification to the continued lack of diversity in the upper echelons of the judiciary. This comes at a time when both the solicitors’ and barristers’ qualification routes are the subject of regulatory review and when the effects of aggressive cuts to legal aid continue to bite across the profession, prompting some to describe legal aid work as ‘career suicide’ (Emma Howard, ‘Going into legal aid work now is career suicide’, Guardian, 6 January 2016).
For Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL), championing diversity and social mobility within the legal aid profession is not new. It forms the bedrock of our aim as a group to support the interests of junior and aspiring legal aid lawyers. We believe the legal profession – like justice itself – should be genuinely open to all. What concerns us is the painfully slow progress of any meaningful change in this area.
In February, the new chair of the Bar Council, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, speaking to the Guardian, put the potential cost of qualifying as a barrister at an eye-watering £127,000 (Owen Bowcott, ‘Qualifying as a barrister “may cost new students up to £127,000”’, 23 February 2016). She acknowledged the ‘huge social mobility challenge’ caused by the costs of qualification and noted the particular and prohibitive impact of this cost on students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This insight mirrors the findings of YLAL in our October 2013 report on social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector, One step forward, two steps back.
In 2013, before the impact of vastly increased student fees could be measured, 65 per cent of respondents to our social mobility survey had debts in excess of £15,000, while a similar proportion of respondents in employment – 67 per cent – were earning £25,000 or less. This combination of high levels of debt and low salaries makes it very difficult for many people to pursue a career in legal aid.
In February, the Sutton Trust, an institution established in 1997 with the aim of improving social mobility through education, published Leading people 2016: the educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite. It found that the proportion of senior judges who went to fee-paying schools has barely fallen in the past 25 years: in 1989, some 76 per cent attended private schools; in 2015 the figure was still 74 per cent. Moreover, the report states that, in 2015, 71 per cent of the top 100 ranked QCs and 32 per cent of partner-level solicitors attended independent schools, compared with a figure of seven per cent for the general population.
With these troubling statistics in mind, YLAL has responded to the recent consultation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) on a proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), the stated purpose of which, it says, is to implement standardised assessment at the point of qualification in order to ‘ensure consistent high standards of entry into the profession, providing confidence for the public and employers’.
YLAL (among others, including the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society) has profound concerns about the effect the proposed changes may have on the accessibility of the profession. To date, the SRA has been unable or unwilling to state how much it expects the SQE to cost, and it is unclear how this new ‘super-exam’ will affect the status of undergraduate law degrees, the Graduate Diploma in Law and the Legal Practice Course. It is also not clear whether or to what extent prospective solicitors will be required to obtain practical work experience through a training contract equivalent in the future.
With so much uncertainty, it is vital that the SRA properly considers the impact on social mobility and the accessibility of the legal profession of any reforms. The consultation closed on 4 March, and we now await (with some trepidation) the SRA’s response. Its responsibility as a regulator undoubtedly extends to supporting entry into the profession by any suitably able candidates, irrespective of wealth or background.
Last month, we met with legal aid minister Shailesh Vara to discuss legal aid policy and future decisions, including how to, as he said in a letter to us, ‘make sure that future generations of legal aid lawyers are able to work effectively’. We used our meeting to do just that: to provide the government with the perspective of young legal aid lawyers not only on the immense damage done to access to justice in recent years, but also on the seemingly ever-declining prospects of aspiring lawyers hoping to build careers serving the public in areas such as social welfare, crime and family law.
The message from the government remains clear: there is no money available for any social mobility initiatives – such as reinstatement of training contract grants for legal aid firms – and the onus is on the profession itself to ensure it is open to all. Unfortunately, it was also apparent from our meeting with the minister that, despite the government’s commitment to review the operation of LASPO between three and five years after its implementation, no decision has yet been taken about how and when this will be conducted. ■