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Legal aid: Are City lawyers best placed to plug the gap?

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Shadow Justice Sec David Lammy’s suggestion BigLaw should up pro bono efforts prompts split on Twitter

A hot debate has once again arisen on social media as to whether City lawyers are best placed to plug the gap in legal support left due to cuts to legal aid.

Some legal commenters say City lawyers are trained in commercial law and so wouldn’t necessarily have the expertise to advise on issues such as social welfare, while others argue big law firms have money sloshing about that they could put towards pro bono funding.

The debate came after Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy MP’s suggestion that City law firms should up their efforts to provide free legal support in return for lucrative government contracts.

In a speech during yesterday’s Labour conference, Lammy said the party is planning for a new state-run national pro bono centre alongside pro bono targets for City firms to encourage partnership between the public and private sector.

“City law firms are making billions in profit, while low-paid workers see their tax bill rise and wages fall,” he said. “This party recognises the importance of the private sector doing their bit in partnership with the public sector.”

Party officials pointed to the near £2 million profits per partner made by the equity partners of magic circle firms Freshfields, Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy as examples.

Such a policy would require City firms to have met the target of at least 35 hours of pro bono legal services per lawyer per year to be eligible for government contracts.

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But some lawyers were left unimpressed by Lammy’s suggestion, saying that City law firms are better off funding law centres and leaving the trained experts to do their job.

“Legal aid lawyers have skills and expertise built over many years of experience in their field,” tweeted Hodge Jones & Allen criminal defence partner Raj Chada. “You may think a couple of hours pro bono will cut it but it doesn’t — how about a justice tax instead on wealthy firms?”

Legal affairs correspondent Fiona Bawdon waded into the argument, writing: “What City lawyers have, which social justice lawyers don’t, is spare cash. If they want to support access to justice, they could fund the cost of a case worker or trainee, or towards core costs, so law centres and advice agencies can keep the lights on.”

Bawdon continued: “What social justice organisations don’t need is pressure to accept ‘help’ from junior lawyers, so the big firms can boast about their CSR commitment on social media and can nominate themselves for pro bono awards, presented at ceremonies with ticket prices that just seem bonkers to anyone working in legal aid.”

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “Lawyers volunteer their time to provide free expert legal advice to the most vulnerable in society on a wide-scale basis and larger law firms have demonstrated a strong commitment to supporting this… However, pro bono should never be a substitute for a properly funded, resourced legal aid and justice system, which is the real solution to providing justice to the vulnerable.”

Lawyers already provide an estimated £7 million worth of free expert legal advice per year, with legal aid delivering around £1.7 billion’s worth. Some City law firms such as Herbert Smith Freehills and Travers Smith have pro bono practices, while others second their trainees out to legal advice centres. Linklaters and Reed Smith, for example, have the option for their trainees to spend six months on secondment to charities and nonprofit organisations.

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19 Comments

Anon

Law firms are businesses in their own right and need to focus on their business model to stay profitable and pay their lawyers. They do pro bono as a favour – not an obligation. They, together with their lawyers, also pay a huge volume of taxation – among the highest in the country. Why are those funds not being applied on legal aid?

Short answer

No.

Paul

Far too many lawyers indirectly cause damage by voting tory.

Anon

I think we can mostly agree that criminal law is generally more interesting than civil law. However, the interest in no way makes up for the fact that you are essentially paid 5-10x less. Money talks at the end of the day, and the government need to stump up.

Anonymous

The gap is best plugged by paralegals etc.

SavetheKrill

Paralegals giving legal advice is a pretty radical proposal. I wouldn’t support that.

Blue Labour, Red Tories

Proposing charity instead of taxation sounds like something which would come from the Tories, not Labour…

A2J now!

It just plays into the narrative of ‘fat cat lawyers’ which has been used by Labour and Tory to cut legal aid. For the types of legal work we’re talking about here the issue isn’t fat cat City lawyers but unwillingness to see that justice needs to be funded. Absolutely no point having Human, statutory or contractual rights if you can’t enforce them.

Anon

One thing you quickly realise after becoming a trainee is that nobody really cares about pro bono work. All those presentations that firms run at grad rec events are complete bs. Once you start, you’ll be too busy doing actual work to give a damn about pro bono.

Normal bloke

“You may think a couple of hours pro bono will cut it but it doesn’t — how about a justice tax instead on wealthy firms?”

Oh jog on you wet wipe. We all pay enough tax already – perhaps spend some of that on legal aid.

Yuckityyuckyuck

The top 1% of earners pay 29% of the nation’s income tax. The average earner in the UK pays and effective rate of 11% income tax. The ordinary hard working families (makes me puke) can stump up a fair share rather than scrounge off the successful.

How to sort out legal aid funding:
1. Charge 1-2% of family estates in divorces with assets over £1m and use that income.
2. No legal aid for criminal appeals. They can be done on a no-win no-fee basis.
3. No legal aid for immigration cases.

Anonymous

There must be, at a minimum, Legal Aid for any cases where an individual is up against the state. And definitely for criminal appeals – there a lot if mags decisions which are frankly illegal.

Anon

11% of appeals against conviction and 25% of appeals against sentence succeed. No-win no-fee is the best filter for appeals with so much money being wasted on bad appeals.

Andrew

To get into the “top 1%” of income tax payers, a person would need to receive income of around £160,000. That is about five times national median earnings.

Yes, people in this bracket pay a lot of income tax, but mainly because they receive an awful lot of income – about 14% of national income goes to the “top 1%”.

But why focus on just income tax, which is less than a quarter of the government’s tax revenues.

It is not even as if it is all “earnings”, as it includes dividends and rents and interest. The top 1% tend to receive significant amounts of dividend or self-employment income, which are taxed less heavily than employment income when you take national insurance contributions into account.

The “top 1%” often have significant capital gains which benefit from a second annual tax free allowance and then are taxed at very preferential rates.

I have a very small violin for rich people and their heavy burden of taxation. Perhaps it would be better to be poor?

Then why pick out immigration appeals? Around 50% are successful. Perhaps it would be better if the Home Office made better decisions instead.

Rich

There is no justice for those on low income, the system is broken. Legal insurance is a waste of time because of the rules no matter how good your case is.
It is always rejected, they need to revise the system make it fair.

Junior Leachman

The paralegals are trained are equipped to deal with the gaps that the magic circle law firm are not able to fill.

SourLemon

Easy answer – ABOLISH BILLABLE HOURS! Make it illegal! Shut down all these toxic firms that suck the soul out of their employees! That’s when we’ll see healthy, ambitious, and competent professionals that will go above and beyond to bring justice to the public. Professionals would then actually have the time to spare in their day to be the kind of lawyer they imagined and wanted to be whilst studying… only blind and ignorant people can disagree! Make it into a movement.

Anon

Somebody didn’t hit their target this year.

Corzeta Stone

Oh!!!! J….Jeremy-Corb…BIN!!!!!

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