It’s time to address the problems that underfunding has caused for those in the justice sector
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Marc Bloomfield
Over the years, Legal Action editorials have covered cuts to civil and criminal legal aid, increases in court fees, court closures, fee cuts, government consultations (frequently on moving litigation to tribunals) and, generally, the lack of access to justice for members of society.
Editorials have covered the many reviews of the justice system including the Bach Commission on Access to Justice and before that the Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support, which former LAG director Steve Hynes was instrumental in setting up and bringing to a successful conclusion. The Justice Committee, chaired by Bob Neill MP, has shone a light into the various dark corners of the legal aid system as have the Joint Committee on Human Rights, JUSTICE, Liberty and Unison. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have weighed in. There is no shortage of reports highlighting problems, outlining solutions, but all leading to little change.
Legal Action has featured the many court cases that have led to progress post-Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). There are too many to fit in all the citations here, but litigation has resulted in changes that have increased the number of people assisted under legal aid. Much credit must go to the Public Law Project for its casework. It has also carried out admirable work on the flawed exceptional case funding scheme.
It is worth reflecting now on the people who are trying to ensure that the system is functioning. Those in the criminal sector have an ally in the Secret Barrister, who has written of the problems faced by lawyers and in the wider criminal justice community – in particular, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the staff in the courts.
In the civil world, there are champions on Twitter outlining the stresses of carrying out civil litigation and highlighting how difficult it is to deal with all the people who can be advised as well as those who cannot be seen under the legal aid scheme or anywhere else. Due to the lack of advice agencies and legal aid providers, too many people are left to deal with difficult legal issues alone. LAG has, on many occasions, raised how difficult it is to navigate court processes without any legal advice, far less any representation.
There are many people in underfunded organisations who are holding their heads above water and paddling furiously underneath. There are people who strive to make up for the underfunding and overloading, but there is a limit to how much they can cope with. As the public sector has faced unprecedented cuts, the decisions by homeless persons units or social services may be challengeable on more occasions, but only if there are lawyers able to take cases on. Faced with funding cuts, public bodies find it easier to make harsh decisions knowing that there will be no challenge.
There is serious concern about the physical and mental health of people operating in the underfunded justice system. There have been some recent cases about junior lawyers’ working conditions that have gone to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. These illustrate the pressures faced by new recruits. Indeed, on 13 February 2019, the Junior Lawyers Division of The Law Society wrote to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) asking what practical support and measures the SRA has in place for junior lawyers who are facing difficulties in raising their concerns in the workplace, and what it is doing to ensure that the organisations employing them are supportive and do not have ‘toxic’ cultures in which they feel unable to raise concerns or ask for help.
LawCare is a service available to ‘anyone in the legal community who is feeling the pressure of work or study, experiencing relationship or financial problems, coping with illness, dependency, bereavement, anxiety or depression’. Wellbeing at the Bar is the Bar Council’s initiative, which aims to respond to the need to support the psychological wellbeing of the profession.
Young Legal Aid Lawyers, too, has been proactive in raising issues in its training sessions and conferences. A page on its website starts in a very direct manner:
Studying and working in law can be stressful for many reasons, and working in legal aid can be even more so. Clients are often in very vulnerable situations, or may have been through very traumatic experiences, and working in legal aid can mean that you hear about these experiences on a regular basis.
YLAL believes that in order to be able to look after your clients, you must also make time to look after you!
Two young lawyers, Rachel Francis and Joanna Fleck (a barrister and solicitor respectively), set up Claiming Space, an organisation that provides in-person and online training for lawyers working with vulnerable populations.
Is there any likelihood that this will change and that people in the sector will be working under less pressure? In his March 2019 editorial, Steve Hynes described the Ministry of Justice’s action plan that resulted from the LASPO review1Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, 7 February 2019. as ‘a plan that has more warm words than action’. There will be further work that may ameliorate some of the worst excesses of the LASPO cuts but it will be rolled out slowly after more research and pilots.
For those in private practice, not-for-profits, the Legal Aid Agency, the CPS, the Court Service and all those involved in the justice system, there needs to be robust support in place to help people deal with the workload and the resultant stress. User-friendly digitalisation will help only to a limited extent. Many people push themselves to the limit because of their concern for clients caught up in the system. Recruiting and retaining people to work in the justice sector is a major issue. More funding is needed to provide services that are commensurate with society’s needs.
 
1     Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, 7 February 2019. »

About the author(s)

Description: Carol Storer - author
Carol Storer is interim director of LAG. She was director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group for 10 years until November 2018.