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Monday, 24 September 2018

Legal Aid Lawyers - an endangered species?

I recently attended a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool focussing on Access to Justice. One disturbing comment from Shadow Lord Chancellor, Richard Burgon prompted this post. He predicted a critical shortage of Legal Aid Lawyers in the future. Where will the next generation of campaigning lawyers come from?

My first real job as a solicitor was at the Vauxhall Law Centre in Liverpool. Back in the early 1980s this Law Centre was in the heart of some of the worst housing in Europe. I applied because it was an interesting and challenging job. I would not have called myself a campaigning lawyer when I started, although that soon changed! The first time you visit a flat with sh*t all over the floor from a backed up toilet changes everything. During my years at the Law Centre I was never short of willing volunteers – law students who saw social welfare law as a career option and wanted real experience. And there was no shortage of opportunities. There were two law centres in Liverpool and one in Warrington. There were also firms which specialised in legal aid work – remember those days?

What a difference a few decades makes! Only a few weeks ago I wrote about the absence of any housing lawyers offering legal aid in Cornwall

Thankfully that has been resolved. There is now one brave solicitor in the entire county!

Earlier this year, the Law Society published figures which showed that the average Criminal Duty Solicitor was 47. Within a few years there could be a desperate shortage –

Considering the current state of our criminal justice system, we are unlikely to see queues of young lawyers wanting to earn an uncertain and meagre living –

Our Universities do a fantastic job with their Law Clinics which enable students to do proper legal work. But they will tell you that this is no substitute for legal aid. Is anyone listening?

It is encouraging to hear the Shadow Justice Minister pledge support for a new generation of young lawyers; promising funding for training opportunities. It was also encouraging to hear his commitment to supporting a new wave of Law Centres. 

But this should not really be a party political issue. Access to Justice is, or should be, a basic human right. What is the point of having rights if you need money to enforce them? The real answer lies in the return to a properly funded system of legal aid, across the country which would breathe life into welfare law across the country and provide a whole new landscape for committed young lawyers.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Concerning Poldark, housing and legal aid deserts


Here are some interesting facts about Cornwall –

1.      Poldark!
2.      The beautiful village of Port Isaac is the setting for Doc Martin,
3.      It is home to Tintagel Castle – said to be the birthplace of King Arthur (above)
4.      It is the second poorest region in Northern Europe -
5.      Even excluding holiday homes, one in ten houses in the county are empty
6.      If you need legal advice on housing matters, you won’t get it unless you have money.

At the end of August, the housing Charity Shelter, closed its office in Truro. It had decided not to apply to renew its legal aid contract for Housing Advice. The reason for the closure was that the charity decided that it should focus work on its 11 urban hubs where there is greatest overall need –

One can understand why a charity would have to make that type of decision.

This was the last surviving provider of legally aided housing advice in the entire county. So now there are none. It is a waste land. If you live in St Ives, you will need to travel almost 80 miles to Plymouth if you need professional advice and help on a housing matter. For us up north, that’s a bit like having to go from Liverpool to Leeds! Just to get some basic legal help.

This is nothing less than a scandal.

Don’t blame Shelter. They are a charity doing their best with limited resources. And why should they shoulder the burden of providing advice to an entire county?

The fault lies well and truly with our government who fail, time and time again, to see access to justice as a priority. It isn’t just Cornwall. Back in July, the Joint Committee on Human Rights warned that large parts of the country had become legal aid deserts.

This has been caused by punitive cuts in the amounts paid to legal aid lawyers, alongside the 2013 removal of huge areas of work from the scope of legal aid. The entitlement to state funded legal aid for those in need began in 1945. Following years of ‘progress’ that entitlement has been reduced to this.

We have a legal system that it is the envy of many.

If we exclude those in need from access to that system, then it becomes a meaningless mockery.

The government is currently reviewing the impact of the 2013 changes. It must urgently acknowledge how those changes have affected the lives of ordinary people and commit to a properly funded system of legal aid.

This is unlikely, there are not many votes in justice, unless we all make as much noise as possible.


Barrister, Russell James who first highlighted this matter has recently tweeted -

Which is good news ... sort of. As he says, it helps access to justice if you know where to find it! And is it really a cause for celebration that an entire county now has one provider of housing advice???