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"Bitter disappointment" as training contract grant scheme is scrapped

12 July 2010

Legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly is scrapping the training contract grant scheme with immediate effect.

Peter Todd, partner in charge of training at Hodge Jones and Allen, said he had received an email “out of the blue” from the Legal Services Commission telling him about the decision. The firm takes between seven and ten trainees a year, some of whom are sponsored under the scheme.

Todd said the grant scheme had helped younger lawyers get into the profession and that the decision to scrap it was a “disappointment”.

“Those seeking to enter the profession might decide to avoid any publicly funded work because of the perception that the pay is second rate and that your life chances are less; so the scheme was a good incentive,” Todd said.

With the number of contracts continuing to reduce, the average age group for legal aid lawyers tended to be older, and according to Todd, young people were deterred from entering the sector. “Talent needs to come at the bottom of the firm, and that should start with a full grant for the LPC,” Todd said.

Laura Janes, chair of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers, said her peers were “bitterly disappointed”.

"The system is really sick and these grants give just enough medicine to keep it going," she told Solicitors Journal, adding: "These training contracts are an investment in the future and to scrap them just to save what is a very small amount of money is extremely short-sighted.”

Contract sponsorship went some way toward sustaining the flow of talented entrants into the legal aid sector, she said, “making sure that legal aid work is not a closed door to applicants from poorer backgrounds”.

Legal Action Group director Steve Hynes agreed the move was likely to close the profession’s door for many aspiring legal aid lawyers. Although the move had been on the cards even under the previous Labour government, Hynes said it was “a kick in the teeth” which would “kill off any hope of having a career in legal aid”.

“It closes off career opportunities for a good section of the population, leaving only the middle class, students with wealthy parents or mature graduates able to afford training,” Hynes continued.

The wider repercussions for the profession however, cause even greater concern.

Laura Janes said the withdrawal of these grants sent “a completely depressing message and shows legal aid is an extremely low priority for this government”.

For Steve Hynes, it signals “a change in ideology”, that it is not the government’s role to support the market but that it is up to the market itself. It was, he said, “a green light to firms to dumb down their services and use paralegals”.

Hynes, who started off as a paralegal, said they played valuable parts in law firms but that when it came to complex work there was “no substitute for well-educated lawyers who had full training”. “Why should clients have a deskilled legal sector?” he said.

The scheme, set up in 2002 to encourage younger lawyers to enter the legal aid market, is the latest casualty in the round of cost cutting at the Ministry of Justice.

Over the past eight years, about 750 lawyers benefited from the scheme, which cost the government £3m per year. The average grant was £8,000 per solicitor.

Talking to a group of lawyers from small and medium-size legal aid firms at the MoJ on 7 July, Djanogly said the scheme would be dropped for future contracts, though funding due under current contracts would be honoured.

The decision is expected to save the government approximately £2.6m over the next three years.

The next round of grants was due to start later this summer, to coincide with the next legal aid contract award round in October.

“When the scheme was introduced in 2002, we needed financial inducements for more young lawyers to enter the legal aid market. Time has moved on and we now have too many lawyers chasing too little work, and greater pressure to save public money, so the financial inducements no longer make economic sense”, an MoJ spokesman said.

He continued: “We have now reviewed our position and decided that we cannot afford to continue with these schemes.

“The long-term future of legal aid is still assured with enough young lawyers continuing to enter the profession. Many firms offer training contracts without being funded by a grant. And there are alternative routes into practice, for example through the paralegal route.”

A total of 165 firms, law centres and not-for-profit agencies have received training grants.

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Regulators Legal Aid Courts & Judiciary