“Demonstrating the value of social welfare lawyers to policymakers and the public.”
For months, lawyers have been attacked by the government for their role in holding it to account, and tarred as ‘activists’ and ‘leftie human rights lawyers and do-gooders’, as if the profession was a unified whole. As a former City lawyer, I once believed the media headlines and thought that practice was much the same, wherever you were. I was ignorant, yes, but if the tabloids and their myths around fat cat lawyers are any indication, these beliefs aren’t unusual. Social welfare law isn’t embedded in the nation’s psyche in the same way as other British institutions, and outside of shock headlines, the public rarely think about legal aid unless they need it.
In reality, the two sides of the profession couldn’t be more different. Lawyers deal in words but those in the City use their words to facilitate and to give effect to transactions, mergers or loans. They use the law to provide industry with opportunity.
Social welfare lawyers use their words to give other people voices: to keep roofs over heads and children fed; to let the vulnerable have some say in their care; to allow families to remain together. They use the law to help people live. These stories don’t make it into the newspapers and I’d argue that very little is known about the work that they do. Yet these lawyers act as a safety net for society with their goodwill and their professionalism – and that is why the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid
has set up an inquiry
to demonstrate to policymakers and the public the social value of this work, the concerns around the viability of these organisations and the future of its practitioners.
Launched in October 2020, the inquiry has been looking into the sustainability of the legal aid profession as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the largest grassroots inquiry into the health (financial and emotional) of the people and organisations on the social justice front line. We are using our six oral evidence sessions with our parliamentarian panel, members of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the shadow justice team to make this information public. Again and again in these sessions, the same themes emerge: fees that don’t cover the cost of providing a service; difficulties entering the profession and recruiting; hugely complex work and sticking plaster solutions that do nothing to address the systemic need for change.
The sessions have been both comprehensive and devastating in what they’ve revealed about this crisis within a crisis. Our next session will showcase practitioners from civil legal aid and will be held on 17 December. We will hear from practitioners in mental health and community care, immigration, education and public law about the sustainability of these practices.
So what do we want to learn through the inquiry? We know that in April 2012, there were 3,670 civil provider offices1Legal aid statistics England and Wales tables April to June 2020, MoJ, 24 September 2020, table 9.1.
but eight years later there are just 1,471.2House of Commons Written Question 99601, 6 October 2020; answered 12 October 2020.
In crime, we know that in the same period, 2,338 offices3House of Commons Written Question 227146, 28 February 2019; answered 5 March 2019.
became just 1,136 throughout England and Wales.4House of Commons Written Question 99600, 6 October 2020; answered 12 October 2020.
What we don’t know is what this decimation has meant in practice to those organisations that are left. We know that legal aid lawyers haven’t had a rise in fees for 24 years, but we don’t know what that means for recruitment and retention or what cross-subsidisation is required to make this sort of work financially viable. We don’t have data on staffing in organisations or the average age of these lawyers. Similarly, we don’t have enough data on those trying to enter the profession, the debt they have incurred and the socio-economic barriers that they face. Crucially, we can’t predict what the picture will look like in five years’ time.
Before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Legal Services Research Centre collected much of the evidence about how the legal aid system operated in practice. Cuts to the legal aid budget mean that this data is no longer collated, and with all of the difficulties previously faced by providers magnified exponentially by the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns, we need it now more than ever. Because if we don’t have this data, the government doesn’t have it either, so how can it possibly legislate in a way that will help this fractured system recover?
Legal aid is all of these figures. But it’s also the junior barrister doing hours and hours of preparation on a sentencing hearing and having to travel hundreds of miles for it, to pay their clerks and their chambers, all for £126. It’s the caseworker buying a vulnerable client lunch and working well beyond closing time to make sure they have somewhere safe to sleep that night. It’s the community care lawyer encouraging their client to tell them about their experiences by drawing pictures and the paralegal who rose to become managing partner of their firm. It’s those of us in policy working to make a difference and those of you at the coalface, year after year. This is what we want the inquiry to showcase.
The sector is all of those stories. The good, the heartbreaking and everything in between. So, please, get involved with the inquiry, take part in our #WeAreLegalAid survey, which will be launched in early 2021, and attend the oral evidence sessions. It’s time to change the perception of social welfare law for good.