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Students and the Cuts to Legal Aid

About The Author

Saema Jaffer (Guest Contributor)

Saema is reading law at the University of Leicester and is the Careers Liaison Officer for the university's law society executive committee. She also writes for The Guardian's Studying Law blog.

2014 has seen the legal profession take industrial action protests for the first time in history and students across the country need to join their campaign to save legal aid.

The main concern over the cuts to legal aid is that the poorest and most marginalised members of society will be deprived of rightful access to justice. For many students, these cuts also represent another nail in the coffin for social mobility, and an end to their aspirations of joining the legal profession. 

As these cuts take effect, law students are seeing areas of law they had their sights set on disappearing before their eyes. Government savings of £320m have already slashed funding for most social welfare law, with cuts to family, housing, immigration and employment law, and with a similar future intended for criminal law. Legal work in these areas will be reduced to an ancillary element of practice as chambers and firms look to get their main revenue streams from privately funded work. The next generation of potential lawyers is being told that unless you have extensive independent financial support, you can forget about a career in publicly-funded legal work.

Simply put, if cases are not funded by legal aid, many firms and chambers, if they survive, become economically weak and unable to hire or train students who want to join the profession, but cannot afford to do so. The most well-known casualty has been Tooks Chambers which released a statement declaring its closure as ‘the direct result of government policies on legal aid’ which are ‘cumulatively devastating the provision of legal services.’ Aspiring criminal law solicitors will know that that the cuts and the new requirement for firms to provide for a whole county area rather than a local town have pushed the number of duty solicitors down by two thirds. This has ensured that high street firms are well on their way to disappearing. As law students, we are finding out that after being burdened with debts of more than £30,000 these cuts to legal aid mean that a career in many areas of law will be beyond our reach.

The outlook becomes bleaker still when we see that further cuts have been imposed on junior lawyers who already earn less than the minimum wage. For those currently earning as little as £80 a day, these cuts will mean getting less than £50. These lawyers tell us that, on their wages, they cannot afford to pay for rent or buy a suit, or even buy their required books; that not only is it a struggle to make ends meet, but that with these cuts, their survival is in danger

Pupil barrister, Hannah Evans, in her One Bar One Voice speech spoke of how those who come from ordinary backgrounds struggle: having ‘attended a comprehensive school on what was once the largest council estate in Europe,’ and worked hard to successfully join the legal profession, she points out that ‘I am just the sort of person they [those in government] want to hold up, to encourage. How odd, then, that they seem committed to doing everything they can to ensuring that people like me - their poster girl - never get to the Bar in the future, and that those of us who worked so hard to get here cannot stay.’

Another pupil barrister, Jennifer Blair, writes: ‘The cuts are another step back towards the time when the legal profession and system were the exclusive domain of the rich; in one term of Parliament the Government is unravelling decades of work to promote diversity.’ 

In an interview with the Guardian, the lawyer who represented Stephen Lawrence’s family pro bono said that he would not be able to take on the Lawrence’s case today because of the cuts, and warned that the destruction of legal aid will affect everybody. ‘What will happen is that society won't get the benefit of those cases where there is such an injustice. No lawyer will take it on. I can't imagine there is going to be another Lawrence case for a long time - if ever.’ Speaking to a barrister at a BPTC funding event recently, I asked him that if we did not protest, what he thought it would take for the government to realise its mistake. He replied instantly: ‘nothing less than an atrocious miscarriage of justice, like that of the Birmingham Six.’ It is worth remembering that despite the absolute necessity of legal aid, it still only requires us to spend 0.5% of our nation’s GDP annually.

The withdrawal of funding has already led to closures of several legal advice centres. This is to be followed by more cuts from local authorities. The worst scarred will inevitably be the communities who rely on legal aid services and will be left helpless. Often, these centres are seen as a last refuge for the most vulnerable, who may have walked several miles to seek help because they cannot afford the bus fare or even make a telephone call. Whilst the number of people seeking help in areas no longer funded by legal aid has nearly trebled since the imposition of the cuts, the sad impact of these savings is that such victims are simply being turned away. 

It was through volunteering for one such advice centre that I was given the chance to work with legal professionals and glean real experience. For others, these legal advice centres are also seen as future employers and a route to the legal profession. For many wanting to join the profession, but lacking personal contacts, these centres give them an insight into the legal world and open their eyes to the possibility of a career in law.

Not only will future law students be deprived of the same opportunities, but by seeing the frontline of legal services dismantled in this way and watching hard working practitioners lose employment, they will be warned away from even considering joining the legal profession.

Despite this, the Ministry of Justice is hopeful that aspiring lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds, including those from ‘poorer backgrounds,’ can be recruited into entering, currently publically funded, ‘community work rather than be attracted by high-paid commercial work in business and industry.’ The sad irony is that it is the legal aid service providers who are being forced out of the legal sphere by the government cuts that comprise much of the diversity in the profession.

Whilst hearing that the government wants to encourage underrepresented groups may sound positive, it will be of little use when we discover upon entering that our earnings do not cover the cost of travel to work, let alone pay our bills. 

Further Reading 

Family Law, 'Thanks to Legal AId'

The Guardian, 'Farewell to Justice on the High Street' 

The Barrister's Nostrum, by Anna Raccoon

A View From the Gravy Train, 'I earn £14kpa as a Paralegal representing people with mental health problems'

Lawyer2B, 'No Legal Aid, No Justice'

Independent, "Simon Hughes: 'Legal profession must do more to reflect modern Britain'"

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Tagged: Justice, Legal Aid, Rule of Law

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