Authors:Rohini Teather
Last updated:2023-09-18
Bringing the issue of social mobility in the legal aid sector to the Conservative party conference
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Parliament (iStock_sedmak)
Party conferences are always slightly surreal – representative bodies, journalists, politicians and their aides, networking and feasting on a diet of warm wine and crisps. This year’s Conservative party conference was even more so, set as it was against a backdrop of the then chancellor’s ill-received fiscal plans, the abandoned 45p tax rate cut, widespread industrial action and ongoing concerns around the rising cost of living and energy bills.
A flick through the fringe guide revealed a huge number of events centring on ‘levelling up’. Former Conservative MP Justine Greening has said that she invented the term in 2014 while attempting to explain the concept of social mobility to her mother. It formed a significant part of the Conservatives’ manifesto in 2019, but three years later its meaning remains somewhat vague (despite an entire government department being charged with its delivery). Together with The Law Society, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid hosted an event asking a range of speakers what ‘Levelling Up the Law’ would mean. The line-up included MPs James Daly and former solicitor general Alex Chalk, I Stephanie Boyce, then president of The Law Society, and Oliver Carter, public law solicitor at Irwin Mitchell and Young Legal Aid Lawyers member. The meeting considered how the legal profession could provide better opportunities for its juniors in their local communities. There is a perception of the law as being focused on the capital and metropolitan hubs, yet the legal sector has strong and vibrant regional bases, with over 73,000 solicitors working outside London.
Daly, a former criminal defence practitioner, spoke of his experiences in Bury representing generations of his local community, and of the gradual erosion of this service, from the closure of regional courts and the impact that has on local providers, to the ability of high-street firms to offer jobs and recruit the next generation. All the evidence that we have seen over the past few years, in Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s work with the Westminster Commission, the Justice Select Committee’s Inquiry into Legal Aid, the Legal Aid Census and Sir Christopher Bellamy KC’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid, has highlighted a real crisis across the profession with recruitment and retention. I have no doubt that we will see exactly the same thing in the forthcoming review of civil legal aid. For all the talk that we’ve had in Westminster about providing opportunities, levelling up in the legal sector just isn’t working.
Both Boyce and Carter spoke at length about the costs associated with entering the legal profession. In July 2010, the Ministry of Justice abolished a scheme that provided training grants to legal aid firms, saying there were ‘too many lawyers chasing too little work’. The scheme cost just £2.6m a year, and from 2002 to 2010 it helped over 750 legal aid lawyers to qualify. Unlike their counterparts in the City, legal aid firms are often unable to assist prospective trainees with the costs of qualification. The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is arguably the most significant thing to happen in legal training in 30 years, yet costs can still be up to £22,000 and remain beyond the grasp of a large number of potential recruits. Training contracts may also be offered after a number of years working as a paralegal on lower salaries, creating additional economic barriers to those from poorer backgrounds.
Along with barriers for those seeking to enter the profession, the event heard about the challenges facing those wishing to remain in legal aid. Carter spoke of vast numbers of people leaving the legal aid profession in the last 12 years – some leaving criminal defence to work for the Crown Prosecution Service, others leaving Law Centres and legal aid firms to work for the government or in private practice. Some have left the law entirely. These are committed, public service-minded young professionals who want to serve their local communities, but who have rent and bills to pay, children or older relatives to care for, and who cannot get by on a legal aid salary.
In 2009/10, the total amount spent on criminal and civil legal aid, adjusted for inflation, was £2.7bn; in 2020/21, it was £1.5bn, a 44 per cent reduction. In 2010, the standard hourly rate for civil legal help work outside London was £52.55. Now that hourly rate is £48.24. If rates had kept pace with inflation since 2010, it would be £72 per hour, so it would need to be increased by 50 per cent just to be brought in line with post-2010 inflation. Less is being spent on the work, which is being undertaken at a loss, which itself ‘trickles down’ to salaries that haven’t kept pace with increases in student debt and the cost of living. Criminal barristers took direct action by refusing to take on legal aid cases, but solicitors – who cannot strike for practical and contractual reasons – are giving up legal aid work in droves. If we are to pay more than just lip service to levelling up, people must be able to see a career in legal aid in their home towns and cities. They must have confidence that affordable routes to qualification exist and a viable career awaits them when they do, commensurate with their skill and expertise as professionals. Politicians must see legal aid firms as a fundamental part of the high-street economy and legal advice as a vital service for our communities. For this, change is needed at all levels of qualification and throughout England and Wales. Change and investment.