Four-fifths of legal aid lawyers have experienced stress as a result of the pandemic, with more than half of them blaming longer working hours, according to a survey.
While only 10% of respondents had been furloughed, over 60% had experienced changes in their working patterns or hours, and over 30% a reduction in their income or household income.
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) polled 420 practitioners as part of its submission to the justice select committee’s inquiry on the future of legal aid and impact of Covid-19.
A large majority (79%) had experienced stress, two-thirds were struggling to switch off from work, while 59% were having difficulty sleeping or had disrupted sleep patterns.
A further 41% had financial concerns, 35% had management concerns and only 5% of lawyers had not experienced any form of adverse impact from Covid-19.
When asked which factors were having a negative impact on their wellbeing, most legal aid lawyers (55%) cited longer working hours.
Many (49%) also mentioned job or organisational insecurity or having more work to do as a result of having fewer staff (43%).
The LAPG commented: “It is clear from the data that many of the staff members working in legal aid firms and organisations are feeling stressed and burnt out.
“That situation looks set to continue well into 2021 as a second wave of Covid-19 takes hold.”
The LAPG said the biggest challenges for the future of legal aid were “the ever-diminishing size and viability of the provider base” coupled with an inability by firms to recruit and retain staff.
“The appeal of choosing a career in legal aid work is wholly outweighed by any common-sense approach to having a viable career. It is no longer the case that those sufficiently committed can ‘make a go of it’.
“The current rate of attrition in terms of staff and providers of legal aid looks set to continue and, in all likelihood, accelerate due to the Covid-19 crisis.
“We are faced with a lethal combination of low fees, delays in court hearings and trials leading to delayed payment, LAA [Legal Aid Agency] bureaucracy, and an aging workforce of stressed and burnt-out staff.”
A separate survey the LAPG carried out on decision making by the LAA found that large majority of legal aid lawyers (86%) have been incorrectly refused funding.
A further 61% said they had been forced to issue a claim or make an application ‘at risk’ – not knowing whether legal aid would be granted to cover the cost of the claim or application while awaiting the outcome.
The LAPG said the problems risked “a potentially devastating impact” on access to justice.
“If providers have to go to such lengths to obtain funding, many will choose not to undertake legal aid work, preferring to take on privately funded clients where there is more certainty of payment and the ability to charge more commercially viable fees.”
The LAPG concluded that the system needed a “huge amount of investment” and current government plans would “do little more than skirt around the edges of what is necessary”.
The organisation recommended, among other things, the creation of an independent body to annually review remuneration rates, reversal of the LASPO cuts in the scope of legal aid and re-introduction of early legal advice in areas such as family and housing.
It also called for the means test to be uprated and the 8.75% cut in criminal fees to be immediately reinstated.