In April this year an e-mail went around the office with the title ‘Consultation on changes in Legal Aid – Please Read.’ Wherever you place it, the word ‘consultation’ is not going to push you to open your e-mail. Even less so when the consultation turns out to be 161 pages.
But the changes that this consultation, entitled ‘Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system,’ would bring to the legal aid system (already described in detail in the interview with Mike Goold by RealFare), include cutting the legal aid budget by £220m a year and a restructuring of the system by encouraging large private corporations to bid for contracts leaving smaller firms struggling to stay afloat.
Not to mention the effect on already vulnerable clients; need help with your divorce case? Problems with welfare benefits? Want to bring a family member to the UK? No longer possible I’m afraid. Even though your income (for you and your partner) does not exceed £700 per month, you can now pay us privately for that application.
So why, despite all these proposed changes to legal aid, did very few people in my office respond to the consultation (myself included). Why has there not been more coverage in the media about the changes and their effects on clients? I thought it was a lawyer’s jobs to argue?
There are a lot of reasons why the inability of the legal profession fails to show how drastically these cuts will affect the most vulnerable in society and bring this to the attention of the media. I am going to look at just a few.
Firstly, legal aid (with the assistance of the ConDems) is turning into big business. Every other week the big London legal aid law firms buy out smaller law firms across the country. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, argues this leads to higher efficiency, reduced costs and ultimately a smaller legal aid bill.
However, despite the changes inadvertently increasing the cost of legal aid (imagine the costs of a London firm to travel to an Immigration Removal Centre in Portsmouth), there are also great effects on staff and clients. For example, the ratio of clients per solicitor has drastically increased, leading to increased stress in an already high stress occupation. This in turn leads to high staff turnover and it’s not uncommon for client’s cases to be passed between 4-5 successive caseworkers.
Secondly, the position of the legal aid lawyers themselves. Despite what the media may have you believe with reports of inflated barristers wages, legal aid lawyers are actually some of the lowest paid professionals. In fact, most people in the large legal aid law firms are not lawyers – they are caseworkers. People who do a 2/3 of the work of lawyers but are paid a 1/5 of the wage, as caseworkers in central London can expect to earn £14k. Moreover, the larger legal aid firms expect a new caseworker to have a caseload of 50-70 clients within 6 months; each client vulnerable and with complex needs. In a further drive for savings, caseworkers get little training, with any costs of examinations coming out of their salaries.
So I understand now why, in April, people were not screaming outside my office with placards. Overburdened legal staff are feeling the effects of putting profit over people. This is only going to get worse, with the projected cuts meaning only big legal aid firms can win the regional contracts to deliver legal aid.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Lawyers took to the streets in a protest outside the Ministry of Justice against the cuts on the 4 June 2012. Letters of protest from NGOs and lawyers made Chris Grayling drop one of the most controversial elements of the April consultation – depriving defendants of the ability to choose their own solicitor in criminal cases.
However there is still more to be done, with the government announcing a second round of consultations in September. As legal aid staff, we need to share ideas and resources between law firms, make time to attend demonstrations and start collecting and sharing the stories of our clients who have successfully been given justice. Despite the daily stresses, we need to remember to keep the bigger in picture in mind. If a few letters can cause the government to U-turn, think of the effect of a sustained collective campaign which highlights the real deficit a reduction in legal aid would have on society.