Authors:Isaac Abraham and Jamie McGowan
Last updated:2024-01-24
“How a future government training scheme can best support aspiring lawyers in social welfare law.”
Marc Bloomfield
Description: YLAL
In October 2023, The Law Society launched a consultation on its green paper, Proposals for a 21st Century Justice system, which explores various ways that the civil justice system can be improved. Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ (YLAL’s) response to the consultation focused on the green paper’s discussion surrounding ‘the next generation of civil legal aid solicitors’. Recognising the scale of the crisis in recruitment and retention in legal aid, we looked at how a future government training scheme can best support aspiring lawyers in social welfare law, with reference to the programmes that already exist and best practice in other jurisdictions.
The Social Welfare Solicitors Qualification Fund
The Social Welfare Solicitors Qualification Fund (SWSQF) provides full funding for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), as well as preparation for the exams. Recipients commit to 70 per cent of their work being in ‘social welfare law’ and are expected to remain in social welfare law for at least two years after qualification. SWSQF has demonstrated how a training grant scheme can work in the age of the SQE and should be used as a model for any future scheme.
YLAL is proud to be one of the organisations that helped to launch and continues to support SWSQF, along with the City of London Law Society and BARBRI. However, as a charitable fund, there are necessarily limitations on its scope – for example, SWSQF does not currently fund employees’ salaries.
The fund has been invaluable in supporting aspiring solicitors who otherwise may not have pursued a career in social welfare law. However, we would hope a government-funded scheme would go further than SWSQF (as a charitable fund) has been able to. For example, much like the old Legal Services Commission training grants scheme, to fully tackle the recruitment and retention crisis a government-funded scheme must contribute towards a trainee’s salary during their training period. It is also firmly within the ‘gift’ of the government for exam fees to be scrapped for aspiring social welfare lawyers.
The Justice First Fellowship
The Justice First Fellowship (JFF) was set up by The Legal Education Foundation in 2013 to provide fully-funded training contracts. JFF covers trainees’ salaries for two years and also funds additional training, although not the professional exams. It is a requirement for applicants to have completed the legal practice course (LPC) or, since 2023, SQE 1.
A unique aspect of the JFF model is that, alongside the formally required work experience, fellows undertake a project that aims to advance access to justice and give their organisation additional capacity to build on their work and seek potential sources of further funding. Furthermore, each JFF cohort has opportunities to network and gain a deeper understanding of the social welfare sector.
Offering additional networking, researching and project-management opportunities alongside qualification is more likely to create long-term careers, foster a sense of community among legal aid lawyers and contribute to a sustainable legal aid sector. We believe that features like this would be valuable to any future grant scheme considered by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
The Legal Aid Training Grant Scheme
The Legal Aid Training Grant Scheme (LATGS) is currently the only funding available for training as a solicitor in civil law that is provided by the MoJ. YLAL is not aware of any official announcement of LATGS. It is referred to in the Housing Loss Prevention Advice Service guidance for service providers (Legal Aid Agency, 1 August 2023), which states: ‘Details of the training grants programme will be provided outside of this guidance’ (para 13, page 4). However, they do not yet appear to have been published. Therefore, information has been obtained primarily from job listings by providers.
YLAL covered the September 2023 launch of this scheme (see November 2023 Legal Action 14), raising some concerns about the very short notice that providers were given to advertise for positions. The scheme has since commenced in November 2023 and will run for two years, funding the SQE and 75 per cent of The Law Society’s minimum recommended salary for employees.1Recommended minimum salary for trainee solicitors and SQE candidates, The Law Society, 31 July 2023.
YLAL welcomes the fact that the government is providing funding for aspiring legal aid solicitors. However, we hope to see similar opportunities extended to a far broader range of civil legal aid contracts. It is also strongly recommended that any future scheme covers at least the full salary of employees. Additionally, we would like to see further funding made available to reflect the significant additional training required in social welfare law; for example, debt, welfare benefits and housing will be necessary in the HLPAS context.
Systems in other jurisdictions
In other jurisdictions, there are periods of compulsory involvement in legal aid work. For example, in Belgium, there used to be a requirement that all trainee lawyers undertake at least six hours of legal aid work within their three-year training period.2Formerly article 3.14 of the Belgian Code of conduct for lawyers. The level of mandatory legal aid work is now set by the chair of the Belgian Bar Council, see Code of ethics for lawyers (updated BOJ 18 01 2022, article 35, page 20). Given how our current system of legal education largely neglects areas of law traditionally covered by legal aid, such a provision applied in this jurisdiction could address this gap and encourage more lawyers into legally aided work.
Long-term solutions required
As The Law Society’s green paper acknowledges, making improvements to the training process is ‘only a short-term solution to the shortage of civil legal aid solicitors and must be accompanied by a significant increase in legal aid fees, to ensure that a career in legal aid work is financially viable’ (page 24). We agree. Years of underfunding legal aid have brought the system to its knees. The inescapable caveat to all of the various models considered and a vision of a centralised training scheme for aspiring legal aid lawyers, is that it will only become possible if and when more resources are devoted to legal aid.
2     Formerly article 3.14 of the Belgian Code of conduct for lawyers. The level of mandatory legal aid work is now set by the chair of the Belgian Bar Council, see Code of ethics for lawyers (updated BOJ 18 01 2022, article 35, page 20). »