This has been a tough year for the legal profession, especially those who provide services for ordinary people.
Legal aid has been virtually wiped out. In that small number of cases where it remains available, the fees have been reduced to such levels as to make it prohibitive as a commercial option. Criminal Practitioners in particular have had to face the spectre of competitive tendering and the possibility of losing work to major corporate providers –
These are some of the most hardworking and dedicated lawyers.
Those who do Personal injury work have seen their fees slashed to a level that has seen many firms decide to close the door –
This has been largely driven by the insurance industry on the back of a fantasy known as the compensation culture. As the dust settles on all of this, firms are now having to take stock and plan their futures in this very different world. One recent report has found that one third of small to medium sized firms expect that they will need to merge or be taken over in order to continue –
This is all familiar news especially to anybody who has followed this blog for the last few months. And it is all a bit bleak for law firms and those who need legal advice but lack the means to pay for it.
But one recent proposal just adds insult to injury. It is being suggested that the gaps in access to justice can be filled by making it mandatory for lawyers to work for nothing. So lawyers would not be permitted to practice unless they carried out a set number of hours of free work. Another proposal is it to make it a compulsory element of legal training so a student cannot qualify unless he/she does so many hours of free work.
How far are we expected to go?
Most lawyers already do huge amounts of free work. According to the Law Society Gazette, 44% of solicitors did free work in the last year. I imagine that that understates the reality. At the same time as a record number of firms are closing, they could be forced to plug the gap in legal services by working for nothing. Get real.
If the government acknowledge that there is unmet legal need then they should deal with this by way of a properly funded legal aid scheme. The stock answer to this is that cuts have to be made. Of course they do. But the money is found to pay for a top class court building for big businesses –
It is really a matter of priority.
Lawyers who want to act for the less well off are told to do it at rock bottom rates or better still, for nothing.