Legal aid news - May 2018

Welcome to our update of the latest legal aid and access to justice news from May 2018.

Criminal legal aid: The criminal bar’s action in response to changes to the way in which criminal legal aid work by advocates is remunerated under the reformed Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), which came into force on 1 April, dominated the legal aid news in May.

On 8 May, YLAL and the Criminal Bar Association ('CBA'), supported by a broad coalition, comprising The Bar Council, Young Bar Committee, Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the Justice Alliance, hosted a briefing event in the House of Commons “Time For Justice: The Law is Broken”, to discuss the crisis in the criminal justice system and to provide MPs with a copy of the Secret Barrister’s book “Stories of the law and how it’s broken” and YLAL’s report  “Social Mobility in a Time of Austerity”.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC spoke at the event, describing access to justice as a “fundamental pillar of our democracy”. Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary, said that he wants to see legal aid return to being a pillar of the welfare state and that “legal rights aren’t worth the paper they are written on if they can’t be enforced”.

Despite this, Parliament voted against repealing the AGFS scheme later that evening. On the following day, 9 May, the CBA announced a policy of “no returns” for Crown Court cases in response to the House of Commons’ vote. This means that barristers would stop the practice of covering hearings for colleagues unable to attend from 12 June 2018..

In their Monday message on 21 May, the CBA focussed on the impact of further cuts on the junior end of the profession and social mobility. Stephen Davies, a criminal defence paralegal, and Danielle Manson, a criminal defence pupil barrister, shared their concerns about the future of the profession. Their stories can be found here.

On 23 May, the CBA met with the Lord Chancellor, the legal aid minister and other government officials. At this meeting, the government put forward an offer in response to the industrial action. The offer included a £15 million investment into the criminal justice system from the Treasury budget (not the Ministry of Justice budget) which will include £8 million for the categories of case that lose heavily under the new scheme (fraud, drug and complex sex cases), £4.5 million towards junior barristers’ fees (all barristers who have not taken silk) and a 1% increase to all fees from April 2019. Further details can be found in the CBA’s message here. On 7 June CBA members voted narrowly to accept this offer.

Social mobility: YLAL co-chairs, Katherine Barnes and Oliver Carter, and vice-chair Siobhan Taylor-Ward, wrote an article for Legal Action magazine summarising the findings of YLAL’s social mobility report and the obstacles facing future generations of legal aid lawyers. They conclude: “Social mobility has moved up the political agenda and we believe the time for change is here. If we co-operate as a sector and, ultimately, work together for change, there are many issues within this report that can and should be resolved. YLAL will campaign on the issues highlighted by our recommendations. We encourage legal aid lawyers of all levels to support us in order to create a fairer and more sustainable profession for the future.”

Minimum pupillage award: On 30 May, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) announced that pupillage awards across England and Wales are to be set in line with the salaries recommended by the Living Wage Foundation and will increase annually in line with that figure. Living wage rates are currently £17,212.50 in London and £14,765.63 outside of London. This current minimum pupillage award is £12,000, which is below the national minimum wage. The BSB’s press release can be read here.

This announcement comes after YLAL’s social mobility report found that the current minimum award can make a career in legal aid unsustainable for aspiring barristers and called on the BSB to bring the award in line with a real living wage.

Minimum salary for trainee solicitors: The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has published an impact assessment on the removal of the minimum trainee salary. In 2014, the previous levels of prescribed salary (£18,590 in London and £16,650 outside London) were replaced with a requirement for trainees to be paid at least the national minimum or living wage. The report round that, on average, trainees receive £560 per year less since the removal of the minimum salary. In respect of diversity, the report found that the median salaries of black and Asian trainees show that they earn less than white trainees and that the mean gender pay gap has risen from £332 to £460. The Law Society recommends, as a matter of good practice, that firms should pay their trainees at least £21,561 in London and £19,122 outside London.