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Tax City lawyers to help the legal aid crisis, says founder of top legal aid firm

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Human rights solicitor defends Michael Gove’s legal levy idea

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A leading human rights lawyer has spoken out in favour of the government’s planned levy on top corporate law firms, calling for 10% of earnings over £150,000 to be taken from City lawyers’ pockets and given to legal aid lawyers instead.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman — founder of London-based human rights outfit and his namesake Bindmans LLP — has spoken out in favour of introducing this hefty tax on top commercial law firms, in an article published in openDemocracy this morning.

The introduction of a levy on commercial lawyers’ profits has been on the agenda since last year. In October, Legal Cheek reported that the government was considering introducing a radical, left-leaning tax, snatching 1% of the top 100 corporate law firms’ turnover to supplement the ever-falling legal aid budget.

Details were, and still are, thin on the ground, but according to Bindman’s article, Justice Secretary Michael Gove has reportedly “made it clear” that the proposal will go ahead.

Bindman has long been a proponent of supplementing public funding in this way, having described unequal access to justice as the “most profound challenge to the legal profession today”. He is “pleased” that Gove has been receptive to the idea — though the pair do differ on the proposed value of this tax. Bindman suggests 10% of earnings over £150,000, which he defends as “hardly punitive”. He said:

Think how much is left. How much does anyone need to lead a comfortable life?

Unsurprisingly, City lawyers aren’t too happy about this proposal, especially given their commitment to pro bono initiatives and high general tax contributions. If Bindman’s correspondence with “the senior partner of a leading City firm” is anything to go by, then there’s another reason why commercial law firms resist the tax: because “the real target… should be government which has caused these issues in the first place.”

There’s an interesting public law discussion to be had about who or what is responsible for the legal aid budget, a debate that’s already being had in the context of pro bono initiatives. For Bindman, the answer is this: public funding “is a government responsibility” but, crucially, “that does not mean that all legal aid funding has to come solely from general tax revenue.”

Details still need to be ironed out, but Bindman is optimistic that the levy “could make a substantial contribution” to the legal system. What it won’t do however — and Bindman realises this — is act “as a panacea for all the woes of the legal system”. The profession will wait with bated breath for Gove to announce his proposals, but there is a real fear that far more will need to be done to save legal aid.