After attending Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ event ‘State of Play for Legal Aid’, GMLC campaign volunteer Leyya Kitmitto writes about the state of the legal profession for aspiring social justice lawyers, and how this impacts on clients.
Legal aid is a fundamental pillar for enabling access to justice for those who could not otherwise afford advice and representation. Despite its importance, there is a distinct lack of support and funding for legal providers that specialise in legal aid.
Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, legal aid provision has continually been stripped back. Legal aid cuts are destroying the sector. The legal aid budget in 2010-11 was £2.6 billion and now in 2021 stands at only £1.6 billion. Law centres have also seen a 40% fall in funding over the last decade. The knock-on effect has resulted in half of legal aid providers shutting down since the cuts were made. This is becoming ever-more concerning as the government places legal aid low on the agenda of priorities for reform, and the effect of the pandemic leaves legal aid on the “brink of collapse”. Many campaigning organisations and legal professionals have reflected that the move to online hearings has led to less people being able to access legal advice. This could present a huge barrier for more vulnerable people, especially those with limited internet access.
This lack of support has a devastating effect on people in need of legal aid, but it also disincentivises prospective lawyers from pursuing a career in legal aid law. Underfunding and under-resourcing negatively affects both legal aid lawyers and vulnerable clients. It is essential that the structural problems within the legal aid system are addressed for both clients and workers in the legal sector.
Barriers to the profession
Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) recently conducted a review of legal education and training. 80% of students completing the survey said that work experience had helped to progress their career in legal aid; of these, 89% had undertaken unpaid work experience. It was also observed that there is an expectation that you will need to undertake low paid work as a paralegal or equivalent for a significant amount of time before being given an opportunity to progress to a training contract. Additionally, following the legal aid cuts, firms are becoming increasingly reliant on low-paid paralegals, meaning that an extended period of low-paid work appears inevitable for many beginning their career. Legal aid cuts and the removal of government grants funding legal aid training contracts mean there are fewer firms prioritising areas of social justice law and high levels of competition to secure a training contract. Some may leave the profession, while others may have to bend to commercial firms’ priorities, even where these priorities do not mirror their reasons for getting into law in the first place.
As universities continue to raise fees, students are finishing their degrees with a huge amount of debt, and then face the prospect of more debt to undertake their legal qualifying exams – often debt on worse interest rates from sub-prime commercial money lenders. Course fees can be particularly problematic for BPTC students in the legal aid sector, where most pupillage awards are very low and course fees remain remarkably high. Many people from low-income backgrounds cannot consider a career in legal aid due to the debt and high levels of self-subsidy required.
In a 2012 YLAL survey, 50% of respondents working in legal aid reported that they were earning less than £20,000 per year and 5% were earning less than £10,000 per year. With debts to pay, expensive professional courses to fund and living costs rising, entering and then sustaining a career in the legal aid sector is becoming increasingly difficult, especially for those from low-income backgrounds. There is pressure to take a higher salary than legal aid lawyers can usually earn.
Gender, disabilities and race: an intersectional barrier
The Lawyers with Disabilities Division reflects upon the barriers facing those with disabilities in their legal career. Many law firms expect their staff to work long hours, including unpaid overtime, which can be extremely challenging or even impossible for people managing appointments and impairments. Inaccessible buildings and travelling for court visits also make life more difficult for legal workers with disabilities.
Similarly, although there has been a major progression towards gender parity within the legal profession, The Law Society report on gender equality in the legal profession demonstrates that more work needs to be done. In a survey considering unequal pay between men and women, over 60% of the respondents reported that they were aware of a gender pay gap within their organisation based on their experiences and knowledge. Further, of the 3,716 people answering the survey, 83% detailed that no visible steps had been taken to address the issue of the gender pay gap in the workplace.
As if these were not problems enough, legal aid cuts are also disproportionately impacting upon black and brown legal sector workers, as there is a disproportionate number of people of colour working in legal aid law compared to private practice. The Bar Council’s interim response to the Independent Review into Criminal Legal Aid found a £15,300 lower pre-tax profit for black men relative to white men and a £9,000 lower pre-tax profit for men of mixed/multiple ethnicity. When overlaying race and sex, it was observed that there was a £18,700 lower pre-tax profit for black women working as barristers compared to white men, and £15,200 for women of mixed/multiple ethnicity. This problem is also affecting prospective legal aid lawyers; a Bar Standards board study considering students obtaining and starting pupillages within a 5-year period found that white students were twice as likely to get a pupillage than ethnic minority students with the exact same qualifications.
These findings demonstrate that barriers affecting people who want to work in law are intersectional: race, gender, disability, and socio-economic background are all barriers. This risks leaving law to demographics already over-represented within it, and creates barriers for those whose lived experience might mean they would make a great representative for others from their communities.
Moving forward: the need for structural change
There is a vicious cycle taking place in the current legal aid system. Chronic underfunding and the implementation of LASPO have led to vulnerable people being denied access to justice, as well as leading to fewer lawyers and aspiring lawyers being able to work within the legal aid sector to advocate and fight for the changes needed to make society and the legal system fairer.
Structural change is needed. There are many changes that could help rejuvenate legal aid law:
- Continued assessment of the impact of legal aid cuts on access to justice.
Increasing awareness of the issues facing those entering the legal profession as well as issues facing clients in accessing legal aid are good first steps. Continual data gathering on the devastating impact of legal aid cuts enables us to put public pressure on authorities who are implementing cuts and writing budgets to increase funding and change rules on eligibility and access to legal aid.
- Funding the future of legal aid.
Increasing funding to the legal sector could create opportunities for those entering legal aid roles. Legal regulators and organisations such as the Law Society and Bar Council need to work to break down the barriers faced by potential legal aid solicitors, including financial barriers such as having no access to funding to complete further study. This would increase social mobility and provide encouragement for students considering a career in legal aid law.
- Eliminating race/gender pay gaps and increasing access to the law for diverse communities.
Law firms and chambers should take positive action to increase diversity within the profession, assessing recruitment systems and ensuring that bias and race/gender pay gaps are eradicated.
- Seizing opportunities to improve the routes to qualification.
With the move towards the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), there is an opportunity to provide more options for funding to increase prospective lawyers’ ability to afford to qualify. The SQE route allows those taking the course to qualify as a solicitor, upon completing their exams, through ‘qualifying work experience’; this can be through internships, volunteer work, paralegal roles and/or training contracts. This will be more flexible for a career path in legal aid law by providing more options and reducing the competition for few training contract opportunities. However, crucially, without an increase in funding options, the intersectional barriers will remain.
- Championing the measures that already exist.
The work of organisations such as Young Legal Aid Lawyers, the Legal Education Foundation and Aspiring Solicitors is vital for increasing diversity across the legal profession. There are many scholarships, mentoring schemes and organisations out there to help reduce the barriers faced when entering the legal profession. Championing and widening these schemes could ensure prospective legal aid lawyers know about the career path, and empower them to get into the social justice sector of the profession.
The Legal Aid Census Student Survey 2021
We need to gather data to demonstrate that urgent reform of the legal aid system is required. There are significant gaps in data regarding legal aid, especially around monitoring the impact of Covid measures on the justice system. Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group’s 2021 Legal Aid Census will be a one tool in the fight for reform. Taking part in the 2021 Legal Aid Census will help to demonstrate the true state of the social justice sector.
Further, launching today (14th June 2021) is the LAPG Legal Aid Census Student Survey, which will help collect data on the barriers facing aspiring legal aid lawyers in entering the profession; providing this information by completing the survey will help LAPG and other organisations in the fight to widening access to careers in legal aid law.