As Carol Storer prepares to step away from the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, she speaks to Catherine Baksi about the ups and downs of her 10 years as its director.
They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, a decade is certainly a long time in legal aid. After 10 years as director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Carol Storer steps down this month. She has outlasted six lord chancellors and two prime ministers, and seen the legal aid budget fall from £2.1bn to £1.6bn, and the number of firms and not-for-profits doing civil legal aid work drop from over 4,000 to under 2,000.
In April 2008, when Storer arrived from Shelter, Gordon Brown was prime minister, Jack Straw was lord chancellor and the scale of the banking crisis was just beginning to emerge. In the dog days of the Labour government, the Law Society had won a legal challenge over new civil legal aid contracts ( EWCA Civ 1264
), price-competitive tendering and the introduction of CLACs (community legal advice centres) and CLANs (community legal advice networks) had been postponed, and another successful judicial review had halted plans to redesign civil legal aid contracts.
On the criminal side, the Law Society had recently won a separate judicial review over the introduction of fixed fees ( EWHC 1848 (Admin)
) and the Legal Services Commission had embarked on a later abandoned effort to introduce best value tendering.1The author gratefully thanks the late Sir Henry Brooke for his comprehensive note on the history of legal aid in appendix 6 to the Bach Commission’s final report, The right to justice (Fabian Society, September 2017).
As Storer departs, the Dancing Queen, Theresa May, clings on to the reins of a Conservative government and the country stands poised to exit the EU. Five years since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force, the profession is still waiting for the outcome of the statutory post-implementation review, the government is still trying to cut legal aid and the Law Society has recently won another legal battle over criminal legal aid (R (Law Society) v Lord Chancellor  EWHC 2094 (Admin)
; see page 13
of this issue).
Through triumph and tragedy, Storer has been a champion for legal aid lawyers. LAPG has survived a fire at its Poor School premises on Pentonville Road, a third-floor flood while sharing space with LAG and Lasa, and another flood at its current home in the Waterloo offices of Steel & Shamash. The organisation, she notes, did manage a few incident-free months housed at Deighton Pierce Glynn.
Fees down; stress up
Over the past decade, as fees have gone down, Storer has observed bureaucracy and stress increase. ‘Running cases and litigation is the easy bit,’ she says, dwarfed by the time spent contending with the effects of all the cuts, and trying to understand and fight ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘wrong’ decisions made by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). She estimates that three out of every 10 people in legal aid firms are now dealing with CCMS (the online client and cost management system), contract and other bureaucratic issues.
To pay for the increased amounts of unbillable work, most firms, she says, have been forced to do more privately paid work. ‘All of this is intensely frustrating, unrelentingly difficult and wears people down. Many who can’t bear it anymore have left.’ The profession, she says, is utterly demoralised and faces challenges at every level – from senior people looking to retire and pass on their practices, to students struggling with debt and desperate to get training contracts.
One ‘huge change’, Storer says, is the number of paralegals being employed, which, she explains, makes it harder for wannabe legal aid lawyers fresh from university to get training contracts. ‘Even where firms advertise for trainee solicitors, the paralegals who they’ve taken on and who have impressed have a very good chance of being appointed,’ she says, which increases the length of time taken to qualify and narrows applicants to those who can afford to work for a low paralegal wage or do unpaid internships. Working to counter this, Storer praises the Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowship scheme, which is helping to create the legal aid lawyers and leaders of the future.
On whether she would recommend that students go into legal aid work, Storer says the acid test is what she would say to her children, neither of whom fancied the law having seen how hard their mother works. ‘I remember a classic conversation when one of them asked their Dad, “Why do we have to go swimming with you every Saturday because we know Mummy’s working?”’
‘Sometimes, as legal aid lawyers, it’s like you’re having an affair because you’re trying to work without your family knowing,’ she observes.
The stress of dealing with vulnerable clients, coupled with long hours and money worries, is taking its toll on the mental and physical health of those lawyers who stay with it. Few, she says, can treat a holiday as a holiday, checking emails and worrying about work while they are away. ‘And because they work at such a high level of pressure, they will be ill for the first week,’ she adds.
The recent fiasco over the new civil contracts was particularly tough and put people under huge pressure. ‘We had 50 organisations contacting us who didn’t know if they’d get a contract. At least three senior lawyers – giants in the legal aid world – were desperate on the phone.’ At the recent LAPG annual conference, the LAA’s chief executive, Shaun McNally, declined to take full responsibility for the debacle, and instead insisted practitioners were partly to blame. Ever the diplomat, Storer says: ‘If you haven’t worked in a legal aid or not-for-profit office, it’s very hard to understand how difficult it is.’
Running a case to the level expected by the Solicitors Regulation Authority is incompatible with the funding under the legal aid scheme.
‘Running a case to the level expected by the Solicitors Regulation Authority is incompatible with the funding under the legal aid scheme,’ says Storer, surprised that many firms deliver a level of service above what is being paid for. She recalls the words of a former senior Ministry of Justice (MoJ) official: ‘Legal aid doesn’t have to be a Rolls Royce; it can be a Ford Cortina.’ But if lawyers cut corners, she explains, they are likely to ‘come a cropper’ with the regulator or be sued for negligence.
The shadow of LASPO
You run out of adjectives in this job. It would take too long to list all the things that were wrong with LASPO.
The ‘darkest’ time of her 10 years, she says, was the passage of LASPO. ‘You run out of adjectives in this job. It would take too long to list all the things that were wrong with it’ – the lack of any evidential base, assertions made by the ministry without evidence, inadequate impact assessments and, as the MoJ’s permanent secretary Ursula Brennan admitted to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in December 2014, the whole job was rushed due to Treasury pressure.
‘More than 5,000 organisations and individuals raised concerns about its impact, and all those concerns have come to pass. That’s 5,000-plus people doing unpaid consultancy work for the government and then being ignored,’ Storer says, blasting the arrogance and dishonesty of the coalition government.
The Act’s devastating impact on some of the most vulnerable in society is well known. ‘We have to hope that the LASPO review leads to some change,’ she says. While she is confident that the review team has been thorough and understands the issues, she is less confident of a positive response. ‘All they can do is present the review to the secretary of state’ and hope that he sees the financial sense in the cliché that it is cheaper to put a fence at the top of a cliff than an ambulance at the bottom, she says, lamenting the diminished status and clout of the lord chancellor since the days of Lord Mackay or Lord Falconer.
Politicians, she says, are safe to ignore legal aid issues because there is little buy-in from a public too remote from it, who see it as paying wealthy lawyers to help clients who have got themselves in a mess. Quoting the former Law Society chief executive, Des Hudson, she says: ‘If you have a service for poor people, it becomes a poor service.’
The fight continues
Among the carnage, there have been victories, with litigation achieving the reintroduction of legal aid in discrete areas and halting fee cuts and contract changes. But the major success, says Storer, is the resilience of the sector and the fact that people are still doing legal aid.
It has been tremendously uplifting to see the tenacity and huge determination of individuals to keep going.
‘It has been tremendously uplifting, at times when I thought the sector was so demoralised, to see the tenacity and huge determination of individuals to keep going, even where legal aid had been refused.’ That has kept her sane – well, that and watching her beloved Charlton Athletic football team.
The biggest challenge for her successor, she says, will be dealing with the outcome of the LASPO review, which she predicts is bound not to satisfy the profession. She urges the government to make a few changes to restore legal aid to some of those who desperately require it and understand the need, in a democratic society, for people to be able to enforce their rights.
Her must-haves from the review are:
•funding for early advice;
•changes in funding for family law cases involving children or domestic violence;
•including benefits advice in possession cases; and
•funding for welfare benefits, debt and employment advice.
This will require more money, though Storer accepts, having read the entire Briggs Report on the future structure of civil courts,2Civil courts structure review: final report, Judiciary of England and Wales, July 2016.
that digitisation will help too. She muses on the possibility of complex and clever artificial intelligence, with online avatars and algorithms that will enable people to talk to their phone to get really good legal advice: ‘Maybe that day will come, but we are a long way away from it.’
After a hectic year in which her ‘work plan’ was scuppered by the contracting chaos, Storer is hoping for a few dull weeks before she heads off, although she does not plan on going far. Ruling out a return to practice, she is keen to research projects that running LAPG has not allowed her time to do.
With characteristic humility, Storer pays tribute to her LAPG colleagues, committee and the ‘warm, witty and wise’ legal aid lawyers she has come across. Her decade in the post, she observes, ended on the ‘unusual note’ of her speaking for the first time at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference. Reflecting, she says modestly: ‘It’s been great fun. I enjoy juggling lots of things and I’d give myself seven out of 10.’ Then she adds: ‘If I’d had fewer things to juggle, I’m not sure I would have done any better.’
In praise of Carol
Jenny Beck, LAPG co-chair:
Carol has worked tirelessly to improve access to justice for those least heard. On a policy level, her influencing skills combine a diplomatic human touch with real tenacity, it’s the perfect cocktail. At an operational level, her support to practitioners and Trojan efforts to fix broken processes to make the day-to-day life of legal aid lawyers work that bit better cannot be overstated. Carol also has a wicked sense of humour and an inexplicable belief that everyone should be interested in Charlton Athletic.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division:
I can’t think of any organisation that wouldn’t have benefitted from having her service and dedication over the years. She could have earned millions [working elsewhere].
Fiona Bawdon, LALY awards founder:
Carol has always done a demanding and difficult job with great skill and commitment, but also tremendous good humour, which makes her so much fun to work with. It is easy for anyone on the outside to underestimate just how all-consuming the role of LAPG director is, not least because Carol did it so deftly.
Laura Janes, LAPG committee member and LAG chairperson:
Carol is phenomenal. Throughout my experience of the gritty, sometimes brutal world of fighting to save legal aid, Carol has been a rock. Practical, sensitive, collegiate and immensely knowledgeable, the struggle against cuts to legal aid over recent years would have been so much more bruising without her.
Chris Minnoch, LAPG operations director:
Carol has achieved an enormous amount behind the scenes and she does so seeking no public recognition for her efforts – the firm struggling with a seemingly intractable contract issue emails Carol because of her knowledge and her discretion; the LAA has a new project and asks Carol how to engage with providers and which firms can help with a pilot; the partner struggling with an HR issue calls Carol for guidance.
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society:
When I left LAPG, I was concerned about what would happen to the organisation next. I needn’t have been. Carol has taken the group from strength to strength, despite the ever-increasing challenges facing legal aid lawyers and the decreasing numbers of them. She can be immensely proud of what she has achieved.