It seems that everyone is talking about the Conservatives’ first budget since 1996. There has been praise and criticism. The main headline grabber has been the National Living Wage – a renamed version of the minimum wage. It may not be pitched at a level that a person could actually live on, but it is an improvement and to that extent should be welcomed.
What does this budget have to say about legal matters? How does it affect lawyers, those who lawyers represent and those who aspire to be lawyers? To be honest there was not a lot but some things are worthy of comment.
Mr Osborne promised to spend more on the protection of victims of domestic violence. £3.2 million will be spent on refuges. These centres have experienced a funding crisis and this investment will clearly be welcome –
But the Chancellor seems to have no intention of making it easier for victims to gain access to justice. There is some legal aid available although this is not widely known or publicised. In order to get legal aid, victims have to gather evidence which is often time consuming or even prohibitive. By coincidence, one very disturbing rule was changed this week. This was the rule that said that you cannot get or continue to have legal aid if the incident of violence took place more than two years ago. This created the bizarre scenario where victims could get legal aid and then lose it once the two year mark was reached. That can no longer happen and this has been welcomed –
But if the Government really want to protect victims, they should reinstate a properly funded legal aid scheme allowing them free access to protection from the courts.
Osborne referred briefly to the need for further regulation of claims management companies. This is hardly new ground. They are already regulated and in some cases payment of referral fees has been banned. It is also true that many companies flout the rules. Cold calling is still widely prevalent. I have been the subject of one such call!
So anything that stops this kind of behaviour is welcome. What is more worrying is the link between compensation claims and high insurance premiums. This rhetoric has been around for years along with the myth that there is a compensation culture. All of the attacks on victims of motor accidents in recent years have been linked to the need to reduce premiums. It is a huge irony therefore, that in the same budget speech the chancellor has announced a massive increase in insurance premium tax which will of course be paid for by motorists!
The worst news from this budget, however, is for those unfortunate students who plan to pursue a legal career. They already face a huge, uphill struggle with eye watering debt and few job opportunities –
So it is a huge disappointment to hear that maintenance grants are to be abolished and replaced by even more loans. The average debt on qualification is about £50k. That figure is bound to rise and will certainly deter many. This will lead to a narrowing of the profession to those who can afford to pay. At a time when most observers agree that more diversity is needed, this is very bad news. Of course that particular nightmare is not limited to law students –
So that is the lawyer’s view. It was a budget with one or two crumbs. But there is little to cheer about for those who are concerned about justice or might, one day, plan to make this their career choice.