In its second evidence session, held on 19 November 2020, the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid
heard from family law practitioners, who gave compelling evidence of a system in crisis.
According to Jenny Beck, a family law solicitor with 30 years’ experience and a co-founder of Beck Fitzgerald, ‘fees are so low it is almost impossible to carry on’. She argued that the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has left in ‘all the difficult cases’, which makes it impossible to make sufficient income from fixed fees.
Beck, who is co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, also told the commission that in family law, there is now a three-tier system: those who can pay; those who fall back on legal aid; and the 80 per cent of people ‘left to navigate the system on their own’. In his evidence, Cyrus Larizadeh QC of 4PB, chair of the Family Law Bar Association and a bencher of the Inner Temple, said that the cuts to private law family legal aid have led to an ‘explosion in the numbers of litigants in person’ that is causing severe delays in the court system.
All the witnesses who gave evidence talked about the problems of recruiting and retaining staff in family legal aid work. Cris McCurley, a partner at Ben Hoare Bell LLP, explained that while the firm does not have a problem recruiting staff for training contracts, it cannot keep them. She revealed that it has ‘lost seven lawyers in recent years to local authorities’ as the salaries it can pay on legal aid rates are not competitive. Lorraine Green, an associate solicitor at Miles and Partners, said she fears that young people who have got into ‘tens of thousands of pounds of debt to qualify as lawyers’ will not choose a legal aid firm
Malvika Jaganmohan, a newly qualified barrister at St Ives Chambers, told the commission that she is not sure if she will stay in legal aid work as ‘I want to have a life’. The COVID-19 crisis meant her ‘workload disappeared overnight’ and she confided that she would not have been able to continue in practice if she’d had to support herself (she lives at home with her parents).
The commission, which was established by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid
to ‘examine the state of the legal aid sector as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic’, heard from the minister responsible for legal aid, Alex Chalk MP. Chalk, who worked at the criminal Bar before becoming an MP, said he ‘gets the issues’ around criminal legal aid (the subject of the first evidence session
). He said he wants ‘to do everything possible to support this important sector’. He paid tribute to legal aid lawyers ‘who work extremely hard’ and pledged ‘to do more to facilitate early legal support and advice’.
In response, Karl Turner MP, the shadow minister for legal aid, argued that the government has to acknowledge that ‘LASPO needs to be repealed’ and that without legal aid practitioners ‘who do an awful lot of work for free, the system would collapse’.