New report finds serious problems with legal help for the public
A newly published report “Running on Empty” from the Bar Council, which represents all barristers in England and Wales, reveals the severity of problems in the civil legal aid system.
The report, which is based on a series of interviews with barristers and clerks, finds that the role of a barrister, in a climate of underfunding of public services, has been forced to stand in for roles that should have been done by other public services. One participant who works on inquests described the role as “you are half social worker, half handler, part counsellor and then advocate.”
Civil legal aid barristers, as outlined in the report, can feel underappreciated, but to feel attacked by government, as they recently have, is a new and worrying development.
One interviewee said: “I think they, the government, does literally see those who practice in legal aid as just a thorn in their side, and they even seek to undermine them by calling them “activist” lawyers, the lawyers who are representing people and defending their rights in a politically sensitive area.”
• There is a serious problem with inequality of arms when it comes to bereaved families being represented at inquests. A bereaved family is likely to be represented by one junior barrister who, despite best efforts, has not had the time or resource to fully familiarise themselves with the background, get to know the family, investigate the case, and is in court facing a number of more senior practitioners representing state agencies.
• The widespread closures of advice centres and high street solicitors, and increased pressure on those that remain, have seriously impacted the Bar.
• Practitioners are having to compensate for the reduction in fee income by taking more cases and working longer hours, leading to a stressful and last-minute working culture.
• Processes at the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) feel obtuse and complicated. There is a widespread perception of a “culture of refusal” at the LAA.
• Unsustainability for barristers coming in at the junior end, and problems with retention and career development, particularly from those without independent financial means.
Chair of the Bar Council, Derek Sweeting QC said: “Our report finds a civil legal aid system running on an empty tank, kept going by nothing more than the goodwill of the legal profession. This is not a sustainable way to guarantee the future of such an essential service for the public.
“The Bar Council has consistently called for a reversal of LASPO, which took many areas of legal aid funding out of scope. Eight years later, we continue to see its damaging effects. We now find ourselves pleading for the bare minimum. We urge the Government to heed the findings of this report and seek to meet the Bar’s commitment to social duty and access to justice with some proper investment in, and respect for, the justice system.”
Read the short report summary here.
Read the full report here.