Social mobility – call for action

Siobhán Lloyd reports back from the Westminster Legal Policy Forum meeting on 2 February where Katie Brown, co-chair of Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL), called for action to stop the loss of the next generation of talented legal aid lawyers.

In front of a packed crowd of delegates from across the charity, political and legal sectors, Katie warned that the cuts contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill would lead to many enthusiastic and talented young lawyers leaving the profession, or even giving up before they start. Katie argued that this would be a disaster for the profession and the vulnerable people whom YLAL members represent.

The conference entitled ‘The future of legal aid – assessing the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill’ was hosted by the Westminster Legal Policy Forum. Legal Aid Minister, Jonathan Djanogly, giving the keynote speech admitted that the Government did not know what the consequences of the LASPO Bill will be. He stated that the Government was actively considering amendments put forward in the recent House of Lords debates. However, he was determined that the main tenets of the Bill would remain unchanged. He also presented the cuts as an opportunity for organisations to assess how they can better deliver their services.

This was a point addressed by Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, Vice-Chair of the Law Society. Although she argued strongly against the cuts, she urged organisations to start considering other ways of funding cases that have until now been granted legal aid.

Other speakers and delegates (including representatives from the Law Society, Citizens Advice, Shelter, the Law Centres Federation and Scope) warned that the Bill if enacted in its current form will have a negative impact on access to justice and will limit the capacity of legal aid lawyers to provide a decent service to their clients. Delegates also provided a number of moving case studies to illustrate how badly clients would be affected.

There is some hope that the House of Lords could reverse the more damaging aspects of the LASPO Bill. However, in her speech to the meeting Katie warned that there was nothing to be gained from winning the battle against the Government’s scope cuts now, if we end up losing the war in 20 years’ time, when there are no legal aid lawyers willing and able to provide advice and representation to publicly-funded clients.

Young Legal Aid Lawyers believes that there is a significant risk of this happening due to barriers faced by those getting started in the legal aid sector. Katie pointed out that cuts over the past few years have already made things difficult. Both the number of training contracts and pupillages have drastically reduced in recent years. Many YLAL members have reported finding themselves in poorly-paid paralegal positions with little or no prospects of career progression.

There is no doubt that the situation will get worse with the proposed legal aid cuts. An arbitrary 10% fee cut across all civil legal aid work will significantly reduce the income of organisations. Managers may feel that they have little choice if they want to continue to provide a service to their clients but to cut back on training, supervision and pay. Katie argued that this would be the wrong thing to do. Instead we need to take action to stop the loss of the next generation of legal aid lawyers.

Firstly, we must continue to campaign against the cuts. Secondly, we should work together to ensure that there is funding in place for training and supervision of new entrants. Thirdly, the sector should be made aware of the problems faced by those at the junior end of their careers.

Katie concluded that it needs to be understood that surviving in legal aid and looking after the interests of junior lawyers is not a case of either/or. Safeguarding the next generation of legal aid lawyers goes hand in hand with safeguarding the future of legal aid itself.

In his closing remarks to the meeting, Rt Hon Elfyn Llwyd MP warned that we were sleepwalking into a nightmare. He argued that there were foreseeable consequences to the Bill and that it was being pushed through without any regard for the level of human suffering it would cause. YLAL agrees with this sentiment and calls on its members to continue to keep up pressure on their MPs and peers to stop the devastating cuts contained in the LASPO Bill.