By Legal Futures’ Associates CILEx
The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) is warning that Legal Aid services are now on the brink of collapse and only the immediate reinstatement of funding can save it.
Responding to the Justice Select Committee Inquiry on the future of Legal Aid, CILEx says that Legal Aid was already at a critical stage long before the pandemic and that repeated cuts, recruitment issues and latterly high-profile attacks by government ministers have all contributed to its demise.
Despite countless warnings from across the legal profession, CILEx argues that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) Post-Implementation Review and the ongoing Criminal Legal Aid Review have done little to resolve the access to justice crisis suffered by the most vulnerable in our society.
Feedback from CILEx members indicates growing problems in Legal Aid recruitment and retention, whilst many firms have been forced to move away from Legal Aid work altogether. This leaves the few remaining practitioners pushed to work harder than ever whilst Covid piles on further financial hardship and an increased administrative burden.
At the same time political rhetoric seeking to denigrate them as ‘lefty lawyers’ and ‘do-gooders’ does nothing for the morale of a sector that is already rock bottom and, CILEx explains, “descends into an unseemly blame-game rather than proper analysis and correction of objectively identified systemic failures.”
Responding to the inquiry CILEx explains, “Funding cuts caused by LASPO have not only compromised recruitment by disincentivising talented practitioners from pursuing career paths in legal aid provision but have also undermined retention efforts as underfunding and under resourcing leads to widespread issues such as incessant court backlogs. As a result, working arrangements within the legal aid market have grown increasingly dependent on a limited pool of providers to provide an unrealistic level of output, worsened by new initiatives, such as extended opening hours for the court estate.
“Without sufficient funding to resolve the root cause of these shortages, solutions such as extended operating hours are simply unsustainable.”
CILEx recommends earlier access to payment for legal aid work to help financially precarious firms, “In order to help safeguard income streams, manage risk and protect the financial longevity of providers in supplying legal aid services.”
Whilst CILEx supports ongoing efforts to reform the courts and increase the use of technology in accessing services, it highlights the importance of ensuring there is adequate funding of essential legal aid and court services to help and support those accessing newly digitised services. Such changes will not be effective without the practitioners needed to make them work effectively.
In addition to pushing for a reinstatement of Legal Aid spend CILEx argues for a diverse and competitive sector, covering all stages of legal aid provision and all parties in need of support and representation:
“Any sustainable solution shall rest upon a healthy and dynamic legal services market, of both generalist and specialist providers, to combat the recruitment and retention crisis apparent within our justice system and bolster competition.
“In a similar vein to the Competition and Markets Authority work on improving price and service transparency in legal services, CILEx stresses the importance of building a diverse sector with healthy competition so that we may rebuild trust in our justice system and incentivise practitioners back into the market.”
CILEx President Craig Tickner, a specialist criminal defence advocate, says. “The precarious financial stability of legal aid firms pre-dates the current Covid crisis. For as long as we can remember we have been calling for proper funding and additional resources, engaging with review processes such as the Criminal Legal Aid Review. With Covid-19 now hovering over remaining providers like the grim reaper, action is needed now. Any delay will be too late.”