With regards to the social implications of the recent legal aid cuts, John Nicholson, a legal aid barrister at Kenworthy’s Chambers, recently said that ‘these changes “transform” legal aid the way an abattoir transforms a cow’. But how do these transformations affect law students career prospects?
The inspiration behind my wanting to pursue a legal career came from the interesting and controversial aspects of criminal law and the importance of justice to society. However, I saw first-hand the debilitating effects of the recent legal aid cuts on the criminal profession during my one week work experience at my local Magistrates court. I heard daily horror stories about the lack of access to justice and the job uncertainty which followed from the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) in April 2013, which makes radical changes to who is eligible for legal aid and for what issues.
Last month, the government set out proposals that legally aided criminal defence lawyers will face a pay cut of 17.5 percent. This has to be seen in historical context, as criminal legal aid rates have not gone up since 1996. Criminal barristers’ fees have been cut by 35 percent over the past 6 years. The reality of life on legal aid wages is shown in a statement made by the Criminal Bar Association which details that ‘60 percent of barristers at the criminal bar earn less than £40,000 a year. They face earning as low as £20 a day, once the hours of skilled preparation, time in court, tax and clerk’s fees are factored in’. Take a minute to compare this with recent plans for MP’s to receive an 11 percent pay rise after the 2015 election, taking their salary up to £74,000. With these devastating blows to the professional economy, it is no wonder that many law students are now considering commercial work over criminal defence as I did because, although they recognised the work to be socially valuable, the pay is far more attractive for commercial work. The average salary in the legal aid sector is around £25,000 whereas for commercial it can be up to £90,000 for a newly qualified solicitor. Being the first generation to be hit with the burdensome £9,000 a year tuition fees, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry when choosing a career path to pay off these debts?
Social Welfare Law No More?
These recommended cuts will slash the yearly legal aid budget by £320m from 2014, and has already removed many areas of civil law from the scope of legal aid. This broadly includes all family law cases that don’t involve domestic violence, benefits, debt and housing cases unless there is a direct threat of homelessness and most immigration cases. In addition to fee cuts for criminal legal aid, clients will be subject to a new means test (members of a household with a disposable income of over £3000 a month will not be eligible). These reforms cast in doubt the viability of practicing social welfare law in general. According to Nimrod Ben-Cnaan (Head of Public Affairs & Governance for the Law Centres Federation) ‘this would have a direct bearing on the future career prospects of today’s law students; indeed, if there are fewer social welfare law practices, and therefore fewer training opportunities in social welfare law, the impact of legal aid cuts might turn out to be generational’.
Fewer Training Contracts
Although the UK enjoys a £25 billion legal market, it is not enjoyed by all. There are many high street firms with turnovers as low as £50,000, and with lower fees and fewer cases eligible for legal aid, one possible outcome is that these firms could strike off less profitable areas, make wide redundancies or shut down completely. A Law Society survey found that 75 percent of criminal law firms will not be profitable after these cuts and it is estimated by the Junior Lawyers Division that 400 firms will have to close as a result. This will affect the availability of legal aid training contracts, especially since the government grants funding them were scrapped in 2010 by the Legal Services Commission, jeopardising hundreds of potential new jobs for LPC graduates. This means practices will be increasingly reliant on low-paid paralegals who even then aren’t guaranteed a training contract in the long-run.
This contributes to the issue of social mobility in the legal sector. A report by Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) outlined that high levels of debt combined with low salaries make legal aid work unsustainable for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. It stated that ‘without a next generation of legal aid lawyers committed to carrying out this socially valuable work, the system cannot function. The government has failed to take this on board’. Similarly, Camilla Graham (former member of the Junior Lawyers Division executive-committee and committee member of YLAL) said ‘[students] cannot afford to become legal aid lawyers, and the legal aid profession is becoming less and less representative of the people it serves- those without means’.
End of the Line?
As well as law firms, free legal advice services are also being closed down. Gillian Guy (CEO of Citizens Advice) says the cuts will have a devastating impact on the CAB network, ‘the overwhelming majority [of our frontline caseworkers and managers] say that it will be impossible to provide a specialist service, whilst over half say that it may be impossible to continue providing any advice service at all’. Accordingly, since the implementation of the LASPO Act in April, three Law Centres have shut down entirely: Streetwise Community Law Centre in south-east London, Harehills and Chapeltown Law Centre in Leeds and Birmingham Law Centre. According to Lord Bach, former opposition spokesperson for legal aid, funding will decline by 85.5 percent, so all remaining Centres have had to reconfigure the services that they offer and restructure staff teams around this, reluctantly losing valued expertise. This has reduced the capacity to take on trainee solicitors and, although many Law Centres still accept volunteering roles, many others like the Bradford Centre no longer have the resources available to facilitate invaluable student work experience placements such as shadowing opportunities.
With clients largely unable to pay fees, and legal aid now significantly reduced, it remains to be seen how many practices will be able to retain legal services in these affected areas and, no less importantly, how they might be able to do so financially. This struggle will be a detriment to law students as it will to society as a whole, as our career prospects can be seen to be cut just as much as legal aid has.