Lawyers “should pay £150 levy to fund social welfare law”

Chambers: Levy is a great idea

Lawyers should pay a levy of £150 each through their practising fees to fund social welfare law, and there should also be a £30 levy on county court cases, an event on unmet legal need heard yesterday.

The proposal was made by Allan Blake, chair of the trustees of the South West London Law Centres, and was described as a “great idea”, by Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP), which hosted the event.

The seminar explored solutions to unmet legal need and Mr Blake, a former law lecturer and founder member of the Legal Aid Board, noted that the number of law centres has shrunk from 63 to 39 and the number of private practice law firms involved in legal aid had shrunk by a third in the last five years.

He said law centres needed “cash stability” and a “supply of legally trained staff”.

A levy of £30 on county court civil cases could raise around £60m every year for social welfare law, and a levy of £150 each on every solicitor and barrister around £25m. This would allow providers to expand into legal aid deserts.

A further idea was a public-backed ‘securitisation’ or ‘draw down’ facility, which would enable social welfare providers to borrow a sum equivalent to 70% of their legal aid work-in-progress at zero interest to fund expansion.

Ms Chambers said she was “very attracted” to the idea of the levy on lawyers, though she did not think it could be done immediately.

But there could be a “regulatory solution” to introducing the levy, she suggested, “if it got a lot of backing from the LSB [Legal Services Board] downwards”. If not, “we must jolly well persuade the government to do it”.

Ms Chambers said in that other sectors, such as energy and water, firms that made a lot of money had to subsidise services for the less wealthy, and it was regarded as “normal” and “perfectly acceptable”, though not “for some reason” in the legal sector.

The levy was “a great idea and without it we will never overcome the funding problem”.

Sally Morshead, managing solicitor at housing charity Shelter, said the country needed “a proper network of social welfare law services”, instead of “an ad hoc system which is failing”.

Backing the levy, Ms Morshead said: “The money has to come from the solicitors’ profession. There is so much money in the profession, just not in this part of it.”

Ms Chambers also called for social welfare law to be a compulsory part of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam and floated the idea that not only should students have to study social welfare law but also “do it”, perhaps in the form of “national service for lawyers”.

Mr Blake said: “How do we allow lawyers to come out with no knowledge of social welfare law? I just don’t understand it.”

Earlier, Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, showed the audience maps of legal aid deserts for social welfare law, including one that highlighted how 84% of people in England and Wales have no access to a legal aid provider in their local authority area for welfare benefits work.

Mr Miller said England and Wales was doing “far worse than comparable countries” in ensuring people had access to justice.

He called for a digital platform to provide “one point of entry” for social welfare law, where cases could be triaged and signposted to providers.

Mr Miller also proposed a legal equivalent of the Teach First scheme, in which, after their university and vocational education, graduates could be granted some “forgiveness of student debt” if they worked for a social welfare law provider before “going off and doing commercial law”.

    Readers Comments

  • Steve CORNFORTH says:

    I have a much better idea. Publicly funded Access to Justice. A catchy name for it might be Legal Aid…ahem!

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