By Haseeb Khan, GMLC Campaign Volunteer.
“‘I am a BPTC graduate and I volunteer with the law centre’s research and editorial team. Having been born and brought up in Manchester I was excited to hear about the fantastic work the centre has been doing recently. Changes to the legal aid landscape are a major part of increasing social inequalities that can be seen across the UK and I am proud to contribute to the great work of GMLC in whatever small way that I can”
“Behind these figures are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, and challenges to welfare benefits assessments. This data also calls attention to the fact that increasingly it is no longer economically viable for solicitors to do this work”.
Law Society Head of Justice, Richard Miller
The figures Richard Miller refers to depict the dramatic slump in the number of legal aid providers. In the last five years the number (of legal aid providers) has fallen 20% from 2991 and 2393. What is behind the fall, who does it impact, how does it impact them and what can be done about it?
Ascertaining the cause of the decimation of the legal aid sector does not require a PhD thesis. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 removed public funding for most housing, welfare, employment and immigration law cases and also dealt a blow to family law legal aid. Cuts to publicly funded legal aid work have left this area of law reeling. As solicitors struggle to make a sustainable living off legal aid, lawyers have abandoned it for more lucrative areas. The net result of this is a lack of redress to justice for families suffering break up, young people with housing difficulties, disabled people who have had to leave work or asylum seekers fleeing persecution. An unjust system has been created where if one cannot afford to access their legal right to justice they either go without or have to represent themselves in court.
Perhaps a less often discussed topic when it comes to legal aid is the impact of the cuts on up and coming professionals. Legal aid is not as desirable as it once was. Of a survey of 1000 students at the University of Law 68 % replied that publicly funded work was too stressful and 54 % would be deterred by this. This stress is caused in part by the dilemma facing aspiring legal aid lawyers on completing their academic and vocational studies. Many complete their education without a secure training contract or pupillage lined up. Unlike their corporate colleagues who find it easier to gain paralegal employment in commercial law firms, young legal aid professionals have less options available to them. Those lucky enough to get paralegal or legal assistant jobs in legal aid may have to supplement their limited salaries with work elsewhere. Those who cannot gain such work may have to go into a commercial firm whilst doing pro bono to maintain their career aspirations. Unless there is some external financial support, legal aid has become an nonviable option.
A consequence of the above is decreasing diversity and social mobility in the legal aid profession. The income of early career legal aid professionals may need supplementing with either previously acquired income or family financial support. A Young Legal Aid Lawyers 2013 report, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’ found that ‘high levels of debt combined with low salaries make legal aid work unsustainable for those from a lower socio-economic background’. Only those who are able to afford the costs of such a career are able to enter it.
There is also a mental health element to the difficulties facing young legal aid professionals. Perhaps they are struggling to support themselves financially, relying on their parents or finding themselves unable to establish their desired career. Individuals may question their self worth and have low self-esteem and confidence as a result. This is exacerbated by a lack of facilities supporting mental health on leaving university.
So far this article has painted a lucidly depressing picture. Whilst it is important to understand the problems that the legal aid industry faces it is also important to realise that there are solutions and that there are communities actively fighting legal aid cuts.
In 2014 due to the cuts, inner city Manchester, Salford and Old Trafford had no law centres. The Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) was established by the Greater Mancunian community in direct response to legal aid cuts. The Centre has grown since opening in 2016 and now offers invaluable legal services in housing and benefits law. Alongside offering legal advice it fights to restore legal aid as an integral part of the welfare state and to inspire and ‘encourage the next generation of conscientious lawyers’. Please do visit the GMLC’s website and social media for more information on the fantastic work that it does.
There have also been movements to address the challenges facing legal aid professionals. This requires the creation of opportunities and networks and relates to actions such as the setting up of law centres. The GMLC employs a duty solicitor and is also offering a training contract through the Justice First Fellowship. The Justice First Fellowship partners with law centres across the country to provide training contracts. It also works with chambers and the bar pro unit to provide pupillages for aspiring social welfare barristers. By forming alliances with solicitors’ firms, law centres, chambers and human rights or social welfare organisations more opportunities can be created for those seeking careers in legal aid.
It is vital that legal services are provided for those who cannot afford them. Therefore pro bono work such as that done by the GMLC and law centres across the country needs recognition and encouragement. In areas lacking such services there is hope and the GMLC proves this. However at the same time there must be engagement in a wider debate on the impact of legal aid cuts and pressure to reverse them. This is the way to facilitate long-term systemic change.