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Fund legal aid training contracts and pupillages, MPs and peers urge government

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Cross-party group call on SRA to include social welfare modules in new SQE

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A cross-party group of politicians and peers are calling on the government to fund legal aid training contracts and pupillages.

The Westminster Commission on Legal Aid’s inquiry into the sustainability and viability of the legal aid sector published this week notes a “crisis” in recruitment and retention at the junior end of the legal aid profession.

It urges the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to reinstate funding for training and qualification placements within legal aid law firms, not for profit organisations (NfPs) such as law centres and pro bono agencies, as well as chambers which undertake publicly-funded work.

“We believe further investment should be made in the sector to allow firms, NfPs and chambers to recruit, train and retain new lawyers,” the report says.

The Commission said that, prior to 2010, more than 750 trainees had benefited from MoJ-funded grants of over £20,000 each to help cover their training fees and salary.

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Other bodies have stepped in to assist with these costs, most notably the Legal Education Foundation’s Justice First Fellowship Scheme, but “this is able to help far smaller numbers of prospective lawyers” (about 15 to 20 per year).

“It is our recommendation that publicly funded grants should be reinstated for solicitors, barristers and legal executives to ensure an adequate pipeline of new practitioners into the sector,” the report says, while not specifying how many there should be.

The report goes on to recommend the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) work with the legal profession and education and training providers to ensure that the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) includes modules on social welfare law.

“It is vital that the sector continues to encourage bright and committed individuals to its ranks and that the profession remains as open to those from diverse backgrounds as it always has been,” it says.

The Commission’s inquiry comes weeks after shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy MP suggested that City law firms and their lawyers should increase efforts to provide free legal support in return for lucrative government contracts.

The Commission, set up last year by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, was chaired by Karen Buck MP. Its members included Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Baroness Natalie Bennett, Lord Willy Bach, Lord Colin Low, Daisy Cooper MP, James Daly MP and Gareth Bacon MP.

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