The Association of Costs Lawyers has put its name to a cross-profession letter to Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab highlighting new evidence of “the urgent need for government action to ensure that legal aid provers are sustainable and can respond to the needs of the public”.
Organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), the letter comes with publication of the results of the legal aid census it carried out last year.
The letter said the census provided “the robust evidence that we need to demonstrate what life is really like for practitioners and organisations on the legal aid front line”.
It told Mr Raab: “You have accepted the parlous state of the criminal legal aid sector and the need for urgent investment in the system and its people if we are to ensure that legal representation is there for those who need it.
“The same is no less true for those in civil legal aid where years of cuts and underfunding have taken their toll. The census demonstrates that practitioners are highly motivated and committed to their clients and to social justice.”
The lack of investment has caused significant issues across the legal aid sector, the census said, including:
- Considerable barriers for those seeking to enter the profession – from limited training opportunities to high levels of student debt that cannot be serviced by low salaries – which are creating a recruitment crisis;
- Difficulties in retaining staff due to low salaries, a lack of career progression and a range of issues impacting adversely on staff wellbeing;
- Fixed fees and hourly rates being too low and failing to reflect the complexity of the work, the vulnerabilities of clients and the time taken to provide the services that clients require, “leading practitioners to do unpaid work, work far longer than they are remunerated for and limiting the type of cases that can be taken on”.
The letter continued: “These factors are primary reasons cited by practitioners for leaving legal aid and help to explain the steady exodus of lawyers and organisations from the sector over the last decade.”
The census was devised by legal academics from the Glasgow School of Law and Cardiff University and launched in April 2021. It received “such a surfeit of quantitative and qualitative data” that the team expanded with additional researchers from Monash University and Oxford University.
They concluded that the legal aid sector was characterised by “significant financial insecurity, which in turn has led to crisis”.
The academics said: “This poses significant threats to the ability of legal aid organisations and chambers to operate, the sustainability of the current workforce, the possibilities for recruiting and retaining the future generation of legal aid practitioners, and the accessibility of justice.”
The number of organisations with civil legal aid contracts has almost halved since 2012 (down to 1,369 from 2,134), with a similar drop in criminal legal aid offices over the same period (down to 1,062 from 1,652).
The letter calls on the government to:
- Commit to an immediate increase in civil and criminal legal aid fees, accounting for historical inflation, and index-linked in the future to ensure that fees increase in line with the cost of delivering services.
- Give more people the opportunity to forge a career in legal aid through, for example, a return to government-funded training and qualification processes for both civil and criminal areas of law.
- Establish an expert advisory panel to conduct further research on access to justice and sector sustainability, to inform future government policy on all aspects of legal aid.
Giving the LAPG the “wholehearted support” of the ACL’s Legal Aid Group, chair Bob Baker said: “We should all be very grateful to their teams for this supreme effort. The results are probably not much of a surprise to anyone involved in legal aid work and we just have to hope that someone listens enough to take the necessary steps to rectify the obvious failings.”
LAPG chief executive Chris Minnoch said: “The census report is a unique and compelling analysis of the legal aid sector and provides yet further evidence that, without significant government action, access to justice will continue to be an illusory concept for all but the wealthiest of UK citizens…
“Despite being an incredibly committed and motivated workforce, lawyers are steadily leaving the sector due to unsustainable workloads and a lack of work-life balance caused by myriad issues across the legal aid system.
“These issues are detailed in the census findings, and the action now required from government is clear – invest and put the legal aid workforce on a sustainable footing.”