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Profession living through biggest onslaught on access to justice

Nicholas Lavender QC accuses government cuts of hindering diversity efforts and drastic pay cuts for criminal barristers

10 November 2014

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More than 1,000 people per day were denied legal help in the year following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), the government's own statistics show.

The figure, which amounts to some 400,000, was used by Nicholas Lavender QC to demonstrate how the profession is "living through the biggest sustained onslaught on access to justice through legal aid there has ever been".

Of those 400,000, 160,000 are husbands and wives involved in family disputes, and nearly 230,000 are those confronted by housing, employment, social welfare or similar problems.

Lavender also pointed to the 5,000 people a month who previously would have obtained representation on legal aid, but who no longer do. "No wonder we are seeing so many more litigants in person in the courts, and especially in the family courts," he lamented.

Criminal barristers

Speaking at the Annual Bar Conference, the chairman of the Bar Council also said he was astonished to learn that the cumulative effect of recent cuts to the advocates graduated fee scheme had resulted in a 21 per cent average cut from 2007/08 to 2012/13 for fees paid to a barrister or other advocate for presenting a defendant's case in the Crown Court had fallen by.

"Allowing for inflation, that is a 37 per cent cut in six years. I am not aware of any other area of public expenditure where individuals have been asked to, and have, put up with cuts on this scale," Lavender said.

"It is no wonder that barristers were not prepared to put up with the further cuts proposed by the government in April 2013. It is no wonder that in the first quarter of this year they took unprecedented steps to show how strongly they felt," he added.

Lavender said it was a good thing the government decided there would be no cuts this year to the advocates graduated fee scheme, and hoped there would be none proposed in future years, either. "None would be justified," he added.

The chairman also took the opportunity to make a sly dig at the government's spending habits, remarking it was sobering to note that three years' defence advocacy in every Crown Court in the country costs the government significantly less than what the government overspent last year on two aircraft carriers - £754m.

Stunted diversity efforts

Lavender also commented that the legal aid changes had had a predictable effect on recruitment to the Bar, and a consequent effect on the Bar's efforts to improve on diversity and access to the profession.

"The number of pupillages has fallen in recent years, particularly in chambers doing family and criminal work, areas of the Bar which have traditionally been among the most diverse. This is yet another external factor, along with the loss of student grants, the introduction of university tuition fees and increasing levels of student debt, which is not of our making, but which increases the challenge we face to promote diversity and social mobility at the Bar," he said.

Noting that the Bar Council takes that challenge seriously, Lavender added it was taking a range of measures to reach out to students from different backgrounds.

"We work with the Social Mobility Foundation to arrange Bar placement weeks in London, Manchester and Leeds. We are also introducing a Bar Mentoring Scheme to allow students to have a contact at the Bar to whom they can turn for advice, encouragement or inspiration."

Lavender criticised those "who give the lie to lazy stereotypes about who [barristers] are and where we come from".

"I myself come from a mining village near Barnsley, where most of my family worked down the pit. I am sure that there are plenty of you in this room who could tell similar stories," he said.

Lavender also told delegates at the conference, held at the end of pro bono week, that their services were not a substitute for a properly funded legal aid scheme.

Lavender referred to Sir James Munby's comments made in the context of a dispute about whether a child should the taken away from his parents, who said: "It is unfair that legal representation in these vital cases is only available if the lawyers agree to work for nothing."

Laura Clenshaw is SJ's managing editor

Follow Laura's tweets at @SJ_Weekly #SJClenshaw