A new campaign for increased legal aid funding has been launched after the findings of a unique census showed the market will not be sustainable without more government action.
The legal aid census showed that practitioners were motivated by their work, but over half of those who had left the sector did so for better pay, working conditions and entitlements.
A letter organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) and signed by multiple organisations told Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab: “You have accepted the parlous state of the criminal legal aid sector and the need for urgent investment in the system and its people if we are to ensure that legal representation is there for those who need it.
“The same is no less true for those in civil legal aid where years of cuts and underfunding have taken their toll.”
The legal aid census was organised by the LAPG and devised by academics from Glasgow School of Law and Cardiff University. It received “such a surfeit of quantitative and qualitative data” last summer that the team expanded with additional researchers from Monash University in Australia and Oxford University.
They concluded that the legal aid sector was characterised by “significant financial insecurity, which in turn has led to crisis”.
The academics said: “This poses significant threats to the ability of legal aid organisations and chambers to operate, the sustainability of the current workforce, the possibilities for recruiting and retaining the future generation of legal aid practitioners, and the accessibility of justice.”
The census heard from 1,208 current legal aid practitioners, 255 former practitioners, 369 organisations, 32 chambers, and 376 students.
The lack of investment has caused significant issues across the legal aid sector, including considerable barriers for those seeking to enter the profession, difficulties in retaining staff, and fixed fees and hourly rates being too low.
The level of fees failed to reflect the complexity of the work, the vulnerabilities of clients, and the time taken to provide the services that clients require, “leading practitioners to do unpaid work, work far longer than they are remunerated for and limiting the type of cases that can be taken on”.
The most common salary for legal aid practitioners was between £30,000 and £39,999, with the majority earning less than £50,000.
“A majority indicated that they felt their salaries were unfair and that they frequently needed to work beyond set hours to meet demands.”
Nonetheless, legal aid practitioners were “a motivated workforce”, with most satisfied with their career choice.
Yet there has been a “steady exodus” of lawyers and organisations from the sector over the last decade: the number of organisations with civil legal aid contracts has almost halved since 2012 (down to 1,369 from 2,134), with a similar drop in criminal legal aid offices over the same period (down to 1,062 from 1,652).
The letter called on the government to commit to an immediate increase in civil and criminal legal aid fees, accounting for historical inflation, and index-linked in the future to ensure that fees increase in line with the cost of delivering services.
It also urged greater support for people to forge a career in legal aid through, for example, a return to government-funded training and qualification processes for both civil and criminal areas of law.
An expert advisory panel should be set up as well to conduct further research on access to justice and sector sustainability, to inform future government policy on all aspects of legal aid.
LAPG chief executive Chris Minnoch said: “The census report is a unique and compelling analysis of the legal aid sector and provides yet further evidence that without significant government action, access to justice will continue to be an illusory concept for all but the wealthiest of UK citizens…
“These issues are detailed in the census findings, and the action now required from government is clear – invest and put the legal aid workforce on a sustainable footing.”
Signatories to the letter so far are: Access Social Care, AdviceUK, Association of Costs Lawyers, FIDA UK (International Federation of Women Lawyers), Housing Law Practitioners Association, Law Centres Network, Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, Legal Action Group, London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, Public Law Project, Resolution, Society of Labour Lawyers, and Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
Separately, the Law Society earlier this week walked back its support for Mr Raab’s announcement of an extra £135m for criminal legal aid after its analysis showed that, rather than the claimed 15% increase in fees, it amounted to 9%.
Sir Christopher Bellamy’s criminal legal aid review, published in December, described a 15% increase as “the minimum necessary as the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”.
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said it was now clear that Mr Raab’s rhetoric about matching the Bellamy recommendations fell “substantially short” of reality.
“We can no longer support the government’s proposals,” she said, adding: “When considering whether to take up new criminal legal aid contracts, our members will need to think long and hard as to whether they believe there is now any prospect of a viable economic future in criminal legal aid.
“Sadly, unless the government changes tack, we no longer believe that there is.”
But the society has not yet decided to take any concrete action as a result, unlike the Criminal Bar Association, which is instigating a policy of no returns from 11 April.
A Law Society spokesman told Legal Futures: “We are exploring all options to help our members make clear to government the inevitable consequences of their decisions. The real threat facing the government is not strike action but that our members just walk away, never to return.”