The Law Society has used Labor’s party conference to renew calls for the government to commit to funding to restore legal aid for early advice.
Society vice-president Lubna Shuja told a Society of Labor Lawyers fringe event, which was attended by shadow justice secretary Steve Reed MP, that solicitors are the ‘silent backbone’ of the justice system and economy.
‘They help small firms with their transactions and contracts. They advise clients going through a divorce, they deal with immigration and asylum cases, they support people going through court generally. The work we are doing impacts everyone in this room,’ Shuja said.
‘Access to justice is a foundational part of the justice system… If you cannot access legal help, you are not equal before the law. If you cannot access legal advice, you are not getting access to justice. The situation is pretty dire. There are large areas in England and Wales where people cannot access free, legal advice when they are entitled to it.’
In the civil sphere, Shuja urged the government to commit to funding to restore legal aid for early advice ‘so solicitors can be involved early in the client’s journey’. She also called for an urgent review of the sustainability of legal aid, which must cover fees, the provider base and geographical demands of the system.
The availability of criminal legal aid had been severely restricted as a result of systemic underfunding, Shuja said – telling the event the number of criminal legal aid firms has fallen by 43% over the past 12 years.
Labor delegates heard that Chancery Lane was recently contacted by a criminal defense solicitor in his sixties who is about to retire. ‘Because criminal legal aid work is unviable, there is no young solicitor willing to come in and take over his practice. There is no nearby firm willing to take over the practice. So when this solicitor retires, that’s it. He’s gone and there is no one to replace him. A profession that has been providing vital public services is dying before our eyes,’ Shuja said.
While barristers are currently striking over legal aid funding, Shuja pointed out that contractual requirements prevent solicitors from taking the same form of direct action. As a result, the plight of solicitors is not causing a commotion. But the situation they face is ‘really, really serious’. Solicitors’ relationship with the client starts at the very outset of the case, Shuja said – supporting individuals throughout the course of their legal journey, starting in the police station, all the way until a court verdict is given.
Shuja urged the government, as a first step, to implement the full 15% remuneration increase recommended by the Bellamy review, and commit to long-term action and reform. (Chancery Lane says the government’s criminal legal aid reform package amounts to an overall 9% increase.)
‘While the barristers’ strike will end one day, unless solicitors receive the investment they need, the steady collapse of the solicitor profession will continue. A permanent loss of solicitors and barristers that is going to cause irrevocable damage.’
An audience member suggested parts of the legal sector ‘doing extremely well’ could make a greater contribution to the long-term health and sustainability of the wider justice system. Shuja replied: ‘Would you expect the health system to fund itself? You would not.’
Shuja highlighted last Friday’s mini-budget announcement where ‘the government found money to fund all sorts of things’.
‘It is the responsibility of government. They can find money for things they want to find it for. They need to find money to put into the justice system and they need to make it a priority,’ she added.
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