I was a legal aid lawyer for almost 20 years before being elected to Parliament. As Justice Secretary, attempts to widen access yet sustain payment for practitioners were soon overwhelmed by the financial crash.
Demands to slash it, as happened south of the border, were resisted. Those siren voices viewing it as an easy saving ignored the plight of those who badly required it and also that it had already been significantly reduced and probably greater than any other justice budget.
It was neither easy nor pleasurable to resist demands by legal aid lawyers for more money. But there was none. I recall telling one lawyers’ conference that public sectors workers were getting a zero per cent pay rise and the prison officers conference I’d just come from had been reeling from the UK Government making them work until they’re 68.
Now legal aid lawyers will point out that public sector pay has increased but not theirs and many will also say that they’ll be working till they drop. The system is fragmenting. When I practiced, I’d tell clients that there was no difference if paying privately, the service would be the same.
Not now, it just can’t be done and that’s not a criticism of the professionalism of those acting, who’ll do their best. Additionally, life is more complex and courts reflect that with increased areas of litigation. It’s been death by death by a thousand cuts. There’s no easy solution and it’ll involve hard choices for the profession and politicians.
But it can’t continue as the number of legal aid lawyers is reducing and their age increasing.