Simon Hughes MP has been an interesting addition to the Ministry of Justice team.
He was a practising barrister for about 9 years before winning the famous Bermondsey by-election in 1983.
He was critical of Government plans to curtail the right of Defendants to select their own lawyers. He has also criticised legal aid cuts that came in last year –
So it will be interesting to see how he gets on with Chris Grayling.
He has made his views known on very important subject; need for a diverse legal profession. Earlier this week he described the profession as being stuck in Victorian era and called for a greater representation, particularly, from women and ethnic minority groups –
He called on law firms to - “proactively go out and look for people from all communities in Britain to be lawyers”.
This has been a major concern for the profession for some time. In 2012 I posted a blog about my fears that the law was becoming a career for the rich –
The Minister’s words are therefore encouraging. However they don’t address the real causes of the problem. We all want a profession that is as inclusive as possible. But there is little incentive for the best candidates to choose the law as a career. They have to run up eye watering levels of debt, sometimes as high as £50k. There is a dire shortage of training places for trainee solicitors or barristers. The minimum salary for trainees will shortly disappear.
I have said before, that I would probably have not been able to qualify as a solicitor if I was starting now. Many of my colleagues say the same.
So what is the government doing to resolve these problems? Mr. Hughes’ statement hardly fills one with enthusiasm - “It may be there’s an additional bit of financial help you need to give to encourage people from poor backgrounds to come into the legal profession at the bottom end”. An additional 'bit' of financial help is like offering someone shelter in your tent to hide from an avalanche.
I do not know a single lawyer who is not committed to a diverse profession. But rhetoric like this contributes nothing to the debate. We need a real commitment to deal with student debt, an issue on which the Lib Dems have not covered themselves in glory. We also need to see regulators reviewing their decision on salaries, so the brightest students are not drawn to other professions.
And a re-think of the relentless attacks on the profession – particularly on those who represent ordinary people – would also play its part.