‘Don’t give up on a career in legal aid’ lawyers urge students, as government reveals firms doing publicly funded work has fallen by 20%

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By Katie King on

Cautious optimism the tide will turn

The number of legal aid firms has fallen by 5% this year, but publicly funded practitioners are urging aspiring lawyers not to be deterred.

This shocking drop has been revealed thanks to a parliamentary question by Labour MP Gloria De Piero to Justice Secretary David Lidington about the number of legal aid providers in each region. In response, Justice Minister Sam Gyimah has said the number of legal aid providers has fallen from 2,991 to 2,393 in the past five years, a drop of 20%. In London, the fall is 13%.

These figures show the dramatic impact Tory legal aid cuts, i.e. the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), have had on the justice system.

This statute was given royal assent in May 2012 and removed public funding for most housing, welfare, employment and immigration law cases, while slashing family law legal aid too — no wonder lawyers hate it so much. The Law Society’s head of justice, Richard Miller, said: 

Behind these figures are hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer obtain legal aid for matters such as family break up, a range of housing problems, and challenges to welfare benefits assessments. This data also calls attention to the fact that increasingly it is no longer economically viable for solicitors to do this work.

Given this bleak outlook, law student eyes are turning to the security of other practice areas. While there are initiatives like the Justice First Fellowship encouraging young solicitors and barristers into social welfare law, others don’t think it’s worth it anymore. “I’d earn more money working in the pub”, criminal law partner Edward Preston told Legal Cheek.

But even in light of this grimness, the Secret Barrister has urged students not to turn their back on legal aid. The anonymous criminal law advocate and writer said:

I’d urge law students not to be deterred from publicly funded work. The current underfunding of legal aid is simply not sustainable, and I have a perhaps naive faith that something is going to give in the next few years. But either way, there will always be people who need access to good legal aid lawyers. And I would always advise that we fight for legal aid rather than flee.

The Secret Barrister’s tide-turning hopes may be well-placed.

The Law Society will be publishing its own LASPO “reckoning” in June, which we bet will be pretty scathing. A review by Lord Bach — who last year penned an article headlined ‘The lack of access to justice is a national disgrace’ — is expected in due course.

And it’s worth noting another key figure in legal aid policy, head of the Justice Committee Bob Neill MP, has previously said: “We have taken out as much as we can, we cannot take out anymore.” Watch this space.

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