Moves are clearly afoot to transfer to burden of securing access to justice from the State to the Legal Profession.
This has been a live issue for a few years –
It also featured in Michael Gove’s first speech as Lord Chancellor in which he made no secret of his view that it was our responsibility –
This has been followed by a report from think tank ResPublica which takes the argument 'where no one has gone before'. They are calling for a compulsory pro bono ‘tax’ on practising lawyers requiring them to ensure that at least 10% of their work is done for no pay – with an exception for the beleaguered legal aid lawyers who only face a 5% tax.
The first problem with this proposal is that is completely ignores the work already done by the profession. In my blog from last year I referred to research by the Law Society which showed that Pro Bono work accounted for about 3% of turnover of all firms - £601m. This is rarely reported by the media.
The ResPublica Report then goes on to insult the entire profession by saying –
“A mandatory pro-bono obligation regulated by the professional bodies could help inculcate an understanding across the profession that the law is not just a business but also and most importantly a vocation.”
Now there may be some lawyers working in the City who have that attitude but I do not know any solicitor who not did go into the profession with an awareness of the need to secure justice for all. That is why many lawyers chose legal aid work, human and civil rights work or represent victims of accidents at work or medical negligence. Having regard to the relentless attacks of the last few years, nobody would choose that work simply as a means of getting rich.
But there is another more serious objection. Why should the legal profession pay an additional 10% tax by way of unpaid work? Tell me any other ‘vocational’ profession where that would even be considered. Lawyers pay tax like everyone else. How many journalists, doctors, teachers or politicians would consider sacrificing 10% of their income just for the privilege of working? The whole idea is misconceived as it is rooted in the myth of the ‘fat cat’ lawyers. More firms have gone bust in the last 5 years than in my previous 30 years as a solicitor.
How dare this remote think tank in Wesminster question the vocation of those lawyers who cannot new accept criminal work as the new legal aid rates would be a road to oblivion?
It may be that ResPublica are directing their attacks at those wealthy commercial and banking lawyers who do earn huge salaries. But this assumes that all lawyers have the same skills and experience. A high flying solicitor who is a genius at mergers and acquisitions will have no experience of defending those threatened with homelessness of appealing against benefit sanctions. That is specialist and demanding work – not ‘cast off’ work that can be dome almost as a hobby.
Of course the real agenda here is that access to justice is in crisis. I have previously called it a waste land. Mr Gove acknowledged this in his speech. We all know that the answer to this is a properly funded legal aid scheme guaranteeing all citizens access to our justice system. The government has no intention of considering this and so they turn to the easy targets – the lawyers!
That approach is now getting a bit long in the tooth and I suspect that the public will begin to see it for what it is.