Four years is a long time in legal aid politics…
As long as Chris Grayling remains as Lord Chancellor, there will be work for YLAL to do, say Katie Brown and Connor Johnston, as they bow out as co-chairs of the group
It was nearly four years ago that we took on the daunting task of replacing Laura Janes as chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL). Our first column for Legal Action spoke of our hopes for the future of YLAL and what we could achieve. Though there remains much to be done to protect the legal aid system and improve social mobility, looking back as we prepare to hand over to new co-chairs, we can be proud of what our committee and members have achieved.
The main task when we took over in 2011 was to campaign against the more egregious aspects of what would become the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Working with the Justice for All and Sound Off for Justice campaigns, there followed many months of concerted lobbying: drafting amendments, preparing briefings, writing to MPs and peers, and encouraging others to do the same.
One particular focus of our efforts was our 2011 research into the impact of the legal aid cuts on MPs, illustrating what would happen to their constituency work should large areas of law be removed from the scope of legal aid. Our follow-up report in August 2013 confirmed the earlier fears that following the implementation of LASPO, there had been a marked growth in the number of constituents demanding help and advice from their MPs; it was increasingly difficult for MPs to refer their constituents for appropriate legal advice as many local agencies had closed; and MPs were concerned for the future.
After LASPO was implemented, YLAL’s efforts moved first to the regulations issued under the act – among them the residence test and the evidential criteria for the domestic violence gateway – before submitting evidence to the various parliamentary committees which were considering the impact of the changes, including the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Justice Select Committee. In time, our focus shifted to the cuts to criminal and civil legal aid which followed the ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ consultation, together with the restrictions on access to judicial review, which formed part of what is now the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.
This work has been complemented by the inspirational efforts of the Justice Alliance, run by experienced and enthusiastic campaigning lawyers, including YLAL’s committee member Camilla Graham-Wood. In recent months, events have come full circle, with the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee, in turn, returning to the impact of LASPO. The latter inquiry, to which our members contributed, criticised the government heavily for the lack of evidence underpinning the cuts, and its failure to measure or even understand their wider impact.
Just as important as YLAL’s campaigning work has been our focus on social mobility in the legal aid sector, with the aim of ensuring that there are junior lawyers, from all backgrounds, willing and able to provide good quality advice and representation to legally aided clients.
In 2012, we undertook a survey of our members. The findings (published in October 2013 with a launch event at London South Bank University with Baroness Hale) were stark. They showed that high levels of debt from education combined with low salaries in the legal aid sector made the work unattractive and unsustainable for lawyers from a lower socio-economic background. The survey also found that the prevalence of unpaid work experience was creating a barrier to social mobility. The inescapable conclusion was that, without reform, there will be fewer lawyers willing to work in legal aid in future, and less diversity in the sector. These were points which we sought to hammer home when responding to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and ILEX Professional Standards (IPS) Legal Education and Training Review, and when campaigning against the SRA’s decision to scrap the minimum salary for trainee solicitors. A recent survey carried out by the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society has reinforced these concerns with only four per cent of respondents to the survey either working in legal aid or interested in working in the sector in future. Proof, if it were needed, that YLAL has plenty of work to be getting on with on this front.
The last four years have also seen a proliferation in the use of social media both to communicate with our members and as a campaigning tool. We now have over 6,000 followers on Twitter, a strong presence on Facebook, and excellent blogs dealing with the realities of life as a young legal aid lawyer (‘View from the gravy train’) and telling stories of legally aided clients (‘Thanks to legal aid’).
The world outside of London
One of the other positive things from our time as co-chairs has been the growth in the number of non-London YLAL groups, which now meet on a regular basis in the Midlands, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, and more recently Kent and Newcastle. Having a wider geographical spread means that, as a group, we now better reflect the need for legal advice and legal aid lawyers around the country. In the first instance, the existence of these groups is the result of the commitment of our members, but recognition should also go to our committee member Carita Thomas, who has been instrumental in their creation along with much of our other work.
Onward and upward
This month, YLAL will celebrate its 10th anniversary and we will formally hand over to our new co-chairs. As long as Chris Grayling remains in the office of Lord Chancellor, we have no doubt that they will have their work cut out for them. But we are equally sure that the enthusiasm and drive of our members will see them through, and will ensure that YLAL is still going strong in another 10 years.