If you faced the prospect of your children being taken into care, or needed urgent legal support because you were the victim of domestic abuse, how would you feel knowing your lawyer was exhausted from working endlessly long hours, trying to make ends meet, not having had a fee increase in more than two decades?
That is the reality for legal aid lawyers across the country, who are doing vital, potentially life-saving work, in increasingly difficult circumstances.
Even before the pandemic, the legal aid scheme was in crisis, and this has only been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Now, a cross-party group of MPs has come together to investigate the state of this vital legal safety net, and the financial and emotional health of the lawyers who work in it.
The Westminster Commission’s Inquiry into the Sustainability of Legal Aid has had two of its six planned evidence sessions, and it’s hard not to be heartbroken and furious in equal measure. Its launch in October 2020 came just in time to bear witness to the same bloodied profession staggering through COVID. This is a sector attacked and pilloried in the popular press and treated with contempt by the Government. To date, we have heard from criminal defence practitioners and those in family law. What started as an exercise in information gathering about the cost of providing a legal aid service has become something far more human and distressing than we could have expected. We have heard first-hand from legal aid lawyers about the financial and emotional toll of doing the work.
Yes, we’ve heard about fees that haven’t risen with inflation in twenty-four years. We’ve heard about an ageing demographic and the struggle to recruit at a junior level in competition with the far wealthier CPS and commercial practices. About court backlogs and COVID measures that simply kick the can further down the road. We’ve heard about the impact of the police practice of ‘Release Under Investigation’, where people suspected of offences can be kept in limbo indefinitely (neither charged with an offence, nor cleared of suspicion) and cases that sit unfinished (and mostly unpaid) for years on end. About the broken legal aid means test, which allows so few people to receive the expert legal assistance that they need when navigating the system. The most memorable elements of the Inquiry have however been the human cost of pursuing this vocation. One barrister revealed that his mum took on a second job to enable him to fund his studies. The paralegal who rose to become managing partner, slashing her salary to pay her staff. The black solicitor working two other jobs to support himself through training because the course fees are so high. The barrister trying to shield her abused client from her attacker’s glare, and the firm contacting 20 chambers to find a barrister able to take on an urgent domestic abuse case at legal aid rates.
Part of the Inquiry’s focus has been on the barriers that many face in trying to enter the sector. We’ve been told that there is some diversity within the profession, particularly in London, but those lawyers at present are in their mid-40s and 50s. BAME graduates are often from a lower socio-economic group and don’t have access to the historic student loans system, or parental support to fall back on. If a graduate leaves university and undertakes the Legal Practice Course, which is generally the first step to becoming a solicitor, they will often leave their studies with debt of between £60-70,000. If they become legal aid lawyers, they will enter a profession where the starting salary in London is £25-26,000, and they may not be able to afford the rent of a room within an hour’s commute of their place of work. For many, the maths simply does not add up. Given these obstacles, those from a BAME background may never get a foothold in the profession, or have to drop out. The profession and society is far poorer for it.
What we’ve heard most of all is the emotional cost of this work. Most of the remaining areas of legal aid involve dealing with highly traumatised clients. The system does not pay for or make allowances for the time that is needed to spend with people in acute distress. Practitioners are exhausted from plugging the gaps caused by cuts to police, social care, refuges, the courts system and judicial sitting days. They report clients getting angry when help isn’t immediate. Family practitioners report an increase in children going into care as a result of COVID, and the mental health of clients suffering in unprecedented ways. These levels of raw emotion from clients place huge demands on practitioners already carrying vicarious trauma on behalf of those that they help – and they are typically paid for maybe 50% of that work. It is hard to watch these sessions and not be incredibly moved by the witnesses.
Legal aid work is intellectually challenging, emotionally draining and socially important. We need skilled, compassionate people, not just today but coming through the system into the future. And we need to fix the system for them and for all of us – including the parents who face their children being taken into care, or the women being abused by their partners.
The Westminster Commission into Sustainability of Legal Aid is a unique opportunity to hear directly from those on the legal aid frontline. We can only all hope the government is listening.