“In a time of austerity, the obstacles facing future generations of legal aid lawyers have increased.”
The good news is that, despite many difficulties, aspiring lawyers still wish to qualify into the sector. This is clear from YLAL’s ever-growing membership and the engagement of our members across the country, but also from the results of our survey. Our respondents told us they want to work in legal aid because of a belief that ‘access to justice is a fundamental cornerstone of our society’, a desire to ‘make a difference to people that need it the most’, and simply that the legal aid sector has ‘the most interesting areas of law’.
However, in a time of austerity, the obstacles facing future generations of legal aid lawyers have increased. We share the concerns expressed by more senior lawyers about the sustainability of crime, family and social welfare law in the face of ongoing cuts to legal aid. Our key findings are summarised below.
•Debt combined with low salaries is a barrier to the profession
This should come as no surprise to anyone working in legal aid. As in our previous report, the financial costs of entry into the profession and the low salaries available were repeatedly cited by members as a cause for concern and a disincentive to working in legal aid. The survey showed that our members face increased debt due to undergraduate and professional course fees, and 53 per cent of respondents were earning less than £25,000.
•The need for (often unpaid) work experience is a barrier to the profession
Unpaid work experience continues to be a major barrier to entry to the profession and therefore to social mobility. Many respondents felt that employers consider significant work experience to be an essential prerequisite for entry-level legal roles as paralegals, trainee solicitors or pupil barristers. A number of members expressed concern about their ability to afford to do unpaid work experience just to get their foot on the legal aid career ladder.
•Stress, workload and lack of support are affecting retention in the profession
Twenty-one per cent of respondents told us that stress is the biggest challenge they experience. The combination of feeling underpaid and undervalued, and working long hours with insufficient training and support, means many junior lawyers struggle to provide a proper service to their clients, who are often incredibly vulnerable people. Some respondents described being pushed to the point where they are considering leaving legal aid altogether.
On the basis of these findings, the report makes a series of recommendations aimed at legal aid employers, regulators and the government. They include:
•Employers should review the wages they pay to staff, noting the ‘real’ living wage as set by the Living Wage Foundation.
•The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) should reintroduce a mandatory minimum salary for trainee solicitors in line with the ‘real’ living wage. The Bar Standards Board should increase the minimum pupillage award in line with the 'real' living wage.
•The government should complete a detailed and effective review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, having consulted with all relevant bodies.
•The fees charged by professional course providers should be regulated.
•The SRA should provide information about the expected cost of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
•The SRA should include civil legal aid areas of law in the training for future solicitors in the SQE.
•Employers should adopt our Best Practice Work Experience Charter (annexed to the report).
•Employers should recognise the psychological impact that practice in this area can have, and offer adequate support to employees.
We believe the legal profession – like the justice system – should be open to all. We acknowledge the progress that has been made towards a more diverse profession; however, the rate of change is a real concern.
Social mobility has moved up the political agenda and we believe the time for change is here. If we co-operate as a sector and, ultimately, work together for change, there are many issues within this report that can and should be resolved. YLAL will campaign on the issues highlighted by our recommendations. We encourage legal aid lawyers of all levels to support us in order to create a fairer and more sustainable profession for the future.