The latest legal aid statistics confirm what those on the front line know – it is getting harder and harder to deliver good quality legal aid services, and survival itself takes a huge amount of commitment and hard work.
Looking ahead, it is to be hoped that the Government’s review of the impact of LASPO will lead to improvements (and the Bach Commission report offers some concrete proposals), but what can be done in the here and now?
The following three strands inform our approach to our work at Islington Law Centre, and of course there are many outstanding examples across the whole of the legal aid practitioners’ movement.
We have to punch above our weight and do more than individual casework alone. The only viable long term solution for our clients is for the UK to develop a realistic funding model for legal aid services, and we can help build the conditions in which that happens. The scale of unmet client need can feel overwhelming, and we need to respond creatively. Strategic litigation, social media, blogs, training, campaigns and raising public awareness – all are vital. They can (and do) achieve change, influence policy and help us retain our sense of purpose. It is encouraging to see that there is now a growing recognition that Legal Aid is not about the needs of lawyers, but of communities and of people facing injustice.
Secondly, collaboration has to be central to any approach. It is resource intensive, and it is not always easy, but good partnerships can help share the workload and support volunteers/front line staff in other agencies to do work which doesn’t need a lawyer (for example, helping a client put documents in order, or to obtain evidence) . It can also bring access to other skills – eg language skills to help establish whether there is a legal aid case. This approach is cost effective, ensuring that providers get appropriate (sometimes quite targeted) cases with relevant documentation, and that clients get joined up support which meets a range of needs. Joint working also helps build skills and expertise amongst community groups and develops real capacity. In recent years, a wide range of partnerships has been set up across the UK – involving law students, academics, campaign groups, pro bono lawyers from the corporate sector etc, many of which are playing an essential role in delivering practical access to justice. The recent development of Kids in Need of Defense UK highlights what can be created, even in the current climate.
Finally, we need to hold on to core values – we are about relationships, not transactions. Our clients have often been overlooked or turned away from other services, or have fallen through what is left of the safety net. It is important for us to remember that we are also affected by the pressure of the work and the trauma that our clients recount to us. Every year at the LALY’s, we are reminded of the sheer brilliance and dedication of so many legal aid lawyers – there is huge value in celebrating our successes, and being reminded of the difference that we make as a movement.
A challenge for the coming period is to think in more depth about support and the wellbeing of those who work in the sector – retaining Living Wage accreditation, supporting people to go not only on technical training but leadership programmes; active engagement in practitioner groups; assistance in developing techniques to manage the emotional impact of the work. The Justice First Fellows are bringing fresh thinking and inspiration, and we need to ensure that they have opportunities to contribute to the development of new models of working.
These are tough times, with further problems ahead as Universal Credit is rolled out, public sector services are cut further and Brexit unfolds. However, we have all kept access to justice on the agenda, and it is heartening that there are signs of a renewed interest in the benefits to society of legal aid. Keeping optimistic, even in the current bleak landscape, is essential if we are to defend our clients’ interests.