Young Legal Aid Lawyers
“It is over three years since LASPO came into force. The time is right to update our research on the state of access to the profession.”
In the April issue of Legal Action (page 15), we lamented the slow progress made in improving diversity and social mobility within the legal profession. This followed research by the Sutton Trust (Leading people 2016: the educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite, February 2016) that found the proportion of senior judges who attended fee-paying schools has remained at around three-quarters over the past 25 years.
At Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL), we have conducted our own research into social mobility and diversity within the legal aid sector, covering education, debt, salaries, unpaid work experience and other barriers to the profession. Our first report on this subject, Legal aid lawyers: the lost generation in the ‘national crusade’ on social mobility, was published in February 2010 as a response to the government’s consultation paper, New opportunities: fair chances for the future (Cm 7533, Cabinet Office, 13 January 2009).
Our recommendations in 2010 included calls to review access to the profession via more vocational routes (an area in which there have been significant developments) and the prohibitive costs of the professional courses required to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. We also expressed concerns about ‘the increasing exploitation of paralegals in the legal aid sector’, which we believed impacted ‘disproportionately on those from more disadvantaged socioeconomic and diverse backgrounds’ (page 18). Regrettably, our request that the government increase the number of Legal Services Commission-sponsored training contracts proved to be too optimistic.
In October 2013, we published a follow-up report, Social mobility & diversity in the legal aid sector: one step forward, two steps back. We found that 50 per cent of junior legal aid lawyers responding to our survey (including paralegals) were earning £20,000 or less, while 67 per cent were earning £25,000 or less. Meanwhile, 65 per cent of respondents had (or estimated they would have) over £15,000 worth of debt as a result of their education.
Furthermore, the vast majority of respondents (89 per cent) had done unpaid work experience, which most felt had helped further their career in legal aid. It was clear that work experience had become a prerequisite to entry to the legal aid sector and it is self- evident that this – particularly when it is unpaid – represents a barrier to social mobility. Our recommendations included reinstating the minimum salary for trainee solicitors, regulating professional course fees and replacing the route to qualification with a form of work-based learning.
Our research has frequently been quoted by journalists and politicians. In September, at her first appearance before the House of Commons Justice Committee, Lord Chancellor Liz Truss was informed by Labour MP Rupa Huq that: ‘Some surveys show that 50 per cent of legal aid solicitors are on £20,000 a year or less. Those figures are from 2013’ (Justice Committee – oral evidence: the work of the secretary of state, HC 620, House of Commons, 7 September 2016, published 9 September 2016). Huq was undoubtedly referring to the figures from our second social mobility report.
The research for that report was carried out in 2012, before the implementation of the legal aid cuts made by the coalition government. It is over three years since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force and, with the brutal impact of the cuts on access to justice now abundantly clear, we believe the time is right to update our research.
In the coming months, we will carry out a survey of young legal aid lawyers across England and Wales that will cover respondents’ educational and family backgrounds, the costs of undergraduate and postgraduate course fees, debt, and work experience (including paralegal roles and salaries), as well as the motivations and barriers to working in legal aid. We strongly encourage all aspiring and junior legal aid lawyers to complete it.
We hope to publish the results in early 2017, and we intend to include proposals for the government, representative bodies and employers to improve access to careers in legal aid. The appointment of a new ministerial team at 102 Petty France may provide something of a clean slate in terms of justice policy. To this end, the Lord Chancellor’s first session with the Justice Committee could offer grounds for optimism, as Truss provided consistently vague and non-committal answers to her parliamentary colleagues’ enquiries.
Following her reference to YLAL’s research, Huq asked Truss whether she would consider reinstating the £2.6m a year legal aid training contract grant scheme, previously operated by the then Legal Services Commission but axed by the coalition government in 2010. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, Truss avoided the question.
After telling the committee that ‘the justice system has to represent or reflect the communities it serves’, Truss did at least acknowledge the profession’s diversity problem: ‘If we do not make sure that everyone has access to it from whatever background, and if we are not using all the talents in our country, there is a huge problem.’ While, of course, we share these sentiments, we see little evidence that the government is taking action to remedy the situation. We intend to use our new social mobility report to inform the debate and push for positive change. ■