I have often been asked what made me decide to be a lawyer. To be honest I would have to say that it seemed a secure career that would be intellectually challenging and provide a reasonable living. But I know that I am not alone in saying that there was something more than just that. I genuinely wanted to fight for justice for ordinary people who were having to battle against powerful government bodies or wealthy Companies including insurers.
I could point to many solicitors and barristers who would say the same. Justice for all has been seen as a foundation stone for any civilised society. The great civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King said – ‘The moral arm of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.’ This has drawn many into the profession for centuries. Never before has the opportunity to do it been under greater threat.
In April 2013 we will see the worst cuts to legal aid since the scheme was created after WW2. Thousands of our most vulnerable citizens – the unemployed, the disabled, tenants of rogue landlords, those going through family breakdown will have their right to legal representation swept away. I have already commented on the effect that this has on access to justice –
Another consequence of this will be to deter a whole generation of students from choosing the law as a career. If they want to fight for the rights of the weak and vulnerable then it seems that this particular option is not for them.
And it is not only legal aid. We have seen recent devastating announcements about cuts to the fees which lawyers can recover for pursuing damages claims for ordinary people – in many cases as much as 60%. Lawyers will not get a lot of sympathy for this. But it will have wider effects. The ability to recover fees from wealthy insurers and companies has been the gateway to justice for many who do not have the massive resources available to them. If lawyers are simply unable to work at those rates, and stay in business, then that gateway is closed.
The main beneficiaries will be the wealthy insurers who will see a huge increase in their profits. You don’t need me to tell you that Insurance Companies are big supporters of the Conservative Party –
I already know of firms who are planning closure leading to inevitable job losses – not only of lawyers but of hundreds of support workers.
So again if anyone is attracted to the law to fight for the weak then again it would seem that the door is being slammed in their faces. Are we going to be left with a profession which represents the wealthy commercial sector but is barred from representing the less well off?
That is a real and serious danger. I suspect that the real fight will only begin once the cuts begin to bite.