The junior bar is shrinking amid legal aid cuts, and pro bono isn’t the answer

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By Katie King on

Free advice ‘will never be enough’, ex-judge says as National Pro Bono Week begins

The impact of legal aid cuts not just on the litigants who desperately need funding but the lawyers left picking up the pieces has been thrown into the spotlight at this year’s annual Bar Council conference.

Taking the stage on Saturday, chair of the bar Andrew Langdon QC said that while the profession, overall, is increasing in size, the number of junior barristers is actually going down. Statistics from the Bar Standards Board (BSB) show the number of barristers being called each year is around the 1,300 mark, this having fallen from over 1,600 back in 2011.

Graph via the Bar Standards Board

One reason for this, Langdon went on, is likely the lack of confidence in public funding. “Our international income is increasing but our income for publicly-funded work is shrinking,” he said.

Legal aid, or rather the lack of, took centre stage at this year’s conference, notably in a speech made by blogging ex-Court of Appeal judge Sir Henry Brooke.

In an address that’s since been lauded by many barristers on Twitter (see embedded tweets below), Brooke likened the Treasury’s treatment of legal aid to Procrustes’ treatment of his guests. Greek mythology states Procrustes stretched out or dismembered the bodies of his guests so as to force them to fit the size of his bed.

Brooke’s speech went on to detail the impact recent legal aid cuts have had on three areas: family, housing and discrimination. Particularly moving was Brooke’s relay of his interaction with a Grenfell Tower resident:

“A Grenfell Tower tenant told us that when they went to their local law centre for help with their landlords, they were told they could receive no help until someone was actually threatened with eviction, or until any disrepair was so bad it was seriously endangering someone’s health.”

In the face of falling public funding and worsening access to justice, barristers (and solicitors) have truly got behind the pro bono movement in a way not otherwise seen before. And while many are very pro-pro bono — Gina Miller notably told us “it’s only right that corporations and individuals who are successful should give back to the society that has afforded their success” — Brooke is alive to its limits.

“Many members of the bar are being generous with their time and their money, with walking and running and cycling and swimming and doing all sorts of other things to raise money for justice,” he said. “But pro bono help will never be enough.”

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He continued:

“If we are to become proud of our justice system again, a comprehensive, evidence-based remedial strategy has to be found. Legal aid is far too important to be left to the tender mercies of the Treasury and the technicians and the high priests of PR.”

Justice Secretary David Lidington has recently promised a review into the 2012 legal aids cuts, due to be completed mid-2018. Brooke’s speech received a standing ovation.

While the reliance on free legal advice as a substitute for a buoyant legal aid system has been called into question for some time now, Brooke’s comments are particularly interesting given that they come at the beginning of National Pro Bono Week.

Legal affairs journalist Joshua Rozenberg will officially open the week-long event at 6pm today, and those interested across the country can get involved in seminars, quizzes, cake sales and more.

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