Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) has always been proactive in engaging with parliamentary inquiries and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultations and reviews. We do this to ensure that decision-makers and those scrutinising the justice system are aware of the experiences of the most junior in the profession. YLAL members are on the legal aid front line and see up close and personal how government policy changes impact our clients and affect the sustainability of the sector.
We can submit robust empirical evidence because YLAL’s members are numerous, diverse and engaged, and always willing to respond to surveys and assist our committee with drafting responses. Here we highlight three examples of our recent policy work to outline why we think YLAL members’ perspectives are unique and valuable.
Inquiries into the sustainability of the legal aid sector
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid
and the Justice Committee
have launched parallel inquiries that will address the sustainability of the legal aid sector. YLAL is well placed to contribute evidence on this issue due to our longstanding work on social mobility and diversity. We have produced three social mobility reports, the most recent of which, Social mobility in a time of austerity
, was published in March 2018. During lockdown, we produced two reports (in April
) on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal aid front line, which included concerns about job security in the wake of the economic fallout from the pandemic.
There can be no denying that without a sustainable ‘pipeline’ of junior lawyers, there will be no legal aid sector. Our members know first-hand how low pay, long hours, large student debts (something more senior members of the profession do not have direct experience of), the culture of refusal in the Legal Aid Agency (and its hold music…) and the ‘paralegalisation’ of the sector have put blockages in the pipeline. These issues, alongside our members’ experiences of the state of social mobility and diversity in the sector, will underscore our submissions to these inquiries.
The administrative law review
The Independent Review of Administrative Law
(IRAL) put out a call for evidence to inform its proposals for reforming judicial review (JR). We know that JR is a vital remedy that provides access to justice for many of our members’ clients. As such, YLAL is submitting a response to the IRAL panel.
On 23 September 2020, we hosted a virtual roundtable of a dozen junior public law practitioners from across the country to crowdsource ideas for our IRAL response. More than 100 YLAL members tuned in and contributed ideas in the chat box. Key themes that emerged from the roundtable included the role of JR in helping local authorities comply with their legal duties to prevent destitution or provide appropriate special educational needs provision. It appeared to be a unanimous view that the mere threat of JR, or a letter under the Pre-Action Protocol for Judicial Review, could resolve issues quickly and effectively. Often, these more ‘bread-and-butter’ JRs are funded by legal help and are not cost-effective for more senior lawyers to work on. As such, our members’ experiences of the role of JR in resolving issues early and out of court is evidence that the IRAL panel needs to hear.
The Criminal Legal Aid Review
YLAL is participating in the MoJ’s Criminal Legal Aid Review
(CLAR). Part of this involves us attending consultation and focus group meetings, as well as feeding into any consultation documents. As the most junior in the profession, our members are the criminal legal aid lawyers most likely to be impacted by the restriction of access to the profession and stagnation of wages caused by the swingeing cuts to criminal legal aid.
YLAL is concerned that the changes that have already been implemented through CLAR are insufficient: the ‘accelerated areas’ do not go far enough to mitigate the harm caused to practitioners by the decades of cuts that have slowly but surely decimated the future of the profession and access to justice.
We implore the government to protect the future of the criminal defence profession and promote social mobility and diversity by ensuring that rates of remuneration are such that those without third-party financial support can practise. Without urgent action, there may not be a criminal legal aid sector left to save.
YLAL will always engage with calls for evidence and make sure that our members’ experiences are heard. We urge those in power to listen to us, before it is too late.