‘What is going on now is the opposite of everything that many people in my generation hoped for in the legal profession,’ said the Deputy President of the Supreme Court to hundreds of legal aid lawyers and students last night.
Speaking at the launch of Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ (YLAL) new report on social mobility in the legal aid sector, Baroness Hale of Richmond said: ‘The steady and precipitous erosion of the legal aid and access to justice scheme is one of the great disappointments of my declining years.’
The first woman Justice of the Supreme Court – born in 1945 – hailed the Beveridge Report of 1942 for its ‘attempts to combat poverty’ and the 1949 Legal Aid and Advice Act for recognising that it is a ‘role of the state to ensure everyone has access to justice’. Baroness Hale continued:
‘Access to justice does not necessarily mean access to lawyers but in a common law world, access to lawyers is the best way of securing access to justice.’
A shuddering halt
Quoting Lord Bingham in his seminal book, The Rule of Law, Baroness Hale said that legal aid is a ‘service which the modern state owes to its citizens as a matter of principle’ before lamenting its ‘steady erosion’ since the 1990s. When the Legal Aid and Advice Act was passed in 1949, 80% of the population was eligible for legal aid, she said, but that figure had dropped to just 30% by 2008.
‘At least the idea was still then that those who couldn’t afford it could have access to lawyers,’ said Baroness Hale, ‘but all that was brought to a shuddering halt by LASPO.’ She continued: ‘there are those of us who wonder whether we might go back to something closer to what my generation used to have.’
A gloomy message
Lady Hale said the message of YLAL’s new report, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’, caused her ‘distress’. Commenting on the report’s finding that unpaid work experience represents a barrier to social mobility in the legal aid sector, she said ‘this bothers me hugely,’ before adding that she found it even more concerning that the number of law schools has increased, thereby adding to the ever-growing number of solicitors and barristers qualifying with no training contracts or pupillages to go to. ‘It is very difficult to encourage people to try when the picture is so grim,’ said Baroness Hale. ‘I don’t know what to say to a particular group of students who want to go the Bar. How much truth do I tell them?’
Responding to a question from the audience as to whether it was time for the judiciary to breach its convention of not criticising the government, the Deputy President of the Supreme Court said: ‘It is not for the judiciary to tell the government what to do. But we can point out what is wrong with some of the policies it espouses.’ She concluded: ‘I wish i could see a way ahead in these difficult days.’
To diversify or not to diversify?
Following the keynote speech from Lady Hale, the investigative journalist Raphael Rowe chaired a panel discussion on social mobility in the legal aid profession. He was joined on the panel (pictured below) by David Johnston, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation; Simao Paxi-Cato, a junior barrister at Invictus Chambers; Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, director of Scott-Moncrieff & Associates Ltd; , Chris Topping, partner of Broudie Jackson Canter Solicitors; and director of the Council of the Inns of Court, James Wakefield.
Commenting on the wider consequences of a lack of social mobility in the legal aid sector, former president of the Law Society Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said that the sector will suffer a loss of talent, as well as a loss of legitimacy. ‘It is important that we have a legal profession and a judiciary that reflects the population,’ she said. Johnston added that there is also an inherent fairness issue: ‘the family you’re born into shouldn’t determine the career you end up in.’ Paxi-Cato, who embarked on his own ‘social mobility journey’ to the Bar after growing up on a council estate, told the audience that they ‘shouldn’t underestimate the importance of public opinion.’ The barrister continued: ‘If clients feel they won’t be listened to because their lawyers are unlike them, they are less likely to go to lawyers, and that will lead to a loss of access to justice in an indirect way.’
The principal finding of YLAL’s new report – that high levels of debt combined with low salaries make legal aid work unsustainable for those from a low socio-economic background – was a recurrent theme throughout the discussion.
On whether law schools should cap the number of students being offered places on the expensive LPC or BPTC, James Wakefield – former Director of the BPTC at Kaplan Law School – said ‘absolutely not’. Pointing out that the course teaches those from a ‘non-professional family background’ how to present themselves for training contract and pupillage interviews, he said that capping the numbers would deprive those from low socio-economic backgrounds of the opportunity of entering the profession, and argued that the structure of both courses instead needs to change ‘to make them cheaper’.
Modern day slavery
Unpaid work experience as a barrier to social mobility was also a hot topic of debate. Chris Topping said that ‘law firms need to consider what we’re getting out of [people on work experience] and whether we should be paying them.’ He pointed out that he paid someone on work experience at his firm because ‘we were billing money for the work they were doing’ and added that other firms ought to ‘take this on board and not create some sort of modern day slavery.’
Despite disagreement among audience members as to whether internships – and even pupillages – should be paid or unpaid, everyone was in agreement about one thing: the legal aid cuts will damage social mobility in the profession even further. Described throughout the evening as ‘savage’, ‘devastating’ and ‘ruthless’, Scott-Moncrieff compared the cuts to ‘boiling a frog alive’. ‘If you turn up the heat gradually, the frog doesn’t notice it’s being boiled,’ she said. ‘And suddenly the frog is gone.’ Finding new ways to meet the unmet need caused by the legal aid cuts is something that’s essential, concluded the former Law Society president.
Thanks to Tom Belger, Legal Aid Watch, for the photos.
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