Last week the new levels for legal aid funding were announced. The cuts for private family law work represent a 40-50% reduction in the amount that law firms will be paid, according to Resolution. The only problem is that it is not just the lawyers who are squealing, but families who have a very real need of assistance to enable them to access justice.
In Spring 1999, the then Lord Chancellor is quoted as saying that we would know when legal aid reform is working when “You hear the squealing of lawyers.” The squealing has just got louder.
Let me make my position clear at the outset. I do not do legal aid work. One reason for this is that Legal Aid does not fund collaborative law work. I am largely unaffected by this announcement in any financial sense. If I join the squealing, therefore, it is not out of a sense of self preservation but quite simply out of a sense of wrong and right.
A contact of mine on Twitter writes a blog where she discusses looking for a job within the Legal Aid sector.@little_lawyer, writes about the moment when in an interview she is told what the firm was offering as a salary, working in London; "In terms of salary, we're thinking £20k"
I think that gives us a good perspective on the reality of the situation. I myself was offered £13k upon qualification in an East Midlands legal aid practice as a newly qualified solicitor back in 1999. But it is not only lawyers that are squealing. Also on Twitter, I was asked the following question by @marsha4854;
“Can you tell me why Legal Aid does not take into consideration Council Tax, gas, electricity, the need to get to work etc?”
I explained that there is simply no appetite on the part of the government, the media, or the general public to preserve legal aid at an adequate level. In this environment of needing to cut back on public spending, slashing legal aid provision for private family law matters is an easy target.
In many areas it is already next to impossible to find legal aid lawyers. It has proved difficult to devise systems for providing legal help when the level of pay is so low. Remember that the hourly rates do not represent salary. Resolution, the family law organisation, calculate that a 14 hour case will be paid at a rate of less than £34 per hour.
That rate has to cover the obligatory professional insurance your solicitor has to have, legal regulation costs, such as practicing certificates, ongoing training, overheads such as office rent/mortgage, utilities, stationary, as well as the salary for support staff and themselves. Little wonder then that Little_Lawyer discovered there was no more than £20k a year left for her – and that was before the changes were announced last week.
The reality is many more legal aid providers will throw in the towel and close their doors. They will go into the general job marketplace, and probably earn more, quite easily, doing other work in other professions or areas of law. It will become increasingly difficult, close to impossible, for people to find a solicitor who can provide legal aid. In summary, slashing private family law legal aid is an easy target.
If lawyers complain, the fat cat response is an easy retort. The lawyers have been squealing, to use Lord Irvine’s charming phrase, for several years. Their complaints will now soon be drowned out by the cries for help of the tens of thousands who are being denied access to legal advice and assistance, and ultimately justice.