Authors:Paige Jones and Kaya Kannan
Last updated:2023-09-18
“Not enough has been done to protect legal aid lawyers during the pandemic.”
Marc Bloomfield
Description: YLAL
Legal aid practitioners are known to have rewarding but notoriously difficult careers. With low pay, long hours, understaffed firms and a crumbling public funding system, legal aid lawyers continue to act for the most marginalised people in society with much difficulty and anguish. Despite this, the legal aid sector is still a popular choice among aspiring criminal, human rights and family law solicitors and barristers, and understandably so with legal aid being the ‘forgotten pillar of the welfare state’.
To add to this, the global pandemic has severely and disproportionately impacted the legal aid sector, meaning that not only are solicitors and barristers significantly affected, but so too are the clients they represent. The fluctuating nature of the COVID-19 restrictions, the variants and the infectious spread have meant that courts across the country have had to shut down and resort to remote hearings. As a result of both lockdown measures and the financial aftermath of the pandemic, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) expects that there will be a significant backlog of cases alongside an increase in the need for advice relating to family, housing, public, welfare benefits, immigration and employment law.
To measure the extent of the disruption and detriment that the legal aid sector has experienced because of the pandemic, YLAL conducted three surveys, asking its members to describe their experiences and identify the best and worst practices used by firms and chambers. The first two were sent to our members in March and April 2020 (with their corresponding reports published in April and May of that year), and the final one was sent out in winter 2021. Following the last of the surveys, YLAL committee members published a report on 1 February 2022 to showcase its findings, as well as comparing the data with that of the previous two surveys to highlight trends in the professional lives of junior legal aid lawyers and to identify whether – and if so, how – the pandemic’s impact on the legal aid sector had changed since it began. The third report is divided into 10 main sections (plus introductory and concluding sections) with themes around basic background information (roles, how many years qualified and areas of practice), the financial impact of the pandemic, workloads, well-being and mental health, the impact on the justice system, and best and worst supervising practices.
A common theme that we noticed was the examples of poor support being provided to junior members during the pandemic. Some of the examples included ‘pressure to come into the office, not listening to concerns about COVID-19, not discussing or making any adjustments’ and ‘poor work/life balance, little supervision/mentoring for newly qualified practitioners, anxiety about the future.’ One member said: ‘I just finished my training contract in August 2021. I received little to no supervision in any capacity. I was left to handle things independently and with little supervision. I hated my job.’
Other sections in our report touch on industry sustainability, findings on technology for remote working, and adaptations for those with caring responsibilities. It also has a section covering job security, which discusses members’ experiences in relation to being furloughed, redundancies and adjournments.
While we recognise that employers and businesses as a whole have had to deal with a complex, difficult and novel situation, YLAL is not satisfied that enough has been done to protect legal aid lawyers and their clients. YLAL discusses recommendations at the end of each report after analysing and comparing the data, with the last one identifying trends across the three reports. For instance, YLAL would encourage the Legal Aid Agency to make payments to legal aid providers in areas that have been severely impacted by ‘Plan B rules’, ie, face coverings and working from home. YLAL also recommends that the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury consider the severe effect of the pandemic on the legal aid sector as well as the ability of marginalised and vulnerable people to enforce their rights and gain access to justice. Following the data around supervising standards for trainee solicitors and pupil barristers, the report also discusses several recommendations to employers to consider the way they manage and supervise their staff, as well as a call for them to seriously consider their well-being.
YLAL continues to campaign for the complete reform of the legal aid funding system and hopes that the findings of these reports alert and educate agencies, organisations and individuals as to the impact of the pandemic on the legal aid sector and the importance of reviving it.