Aiding the underdog
When Russell Conway went into the law, legal aid forms were green, blue and pink, and despite the cuts, he remains committed to helping those who can't help themselves
It’s that time again when we all bid for new legal aid contracts. Firms throughout the land will be glued to their computers this May, sweating over not making some fatal error in their bid.
The process reminds me of an auction for a valuable painting, house, or something more esoteric, like a stamp collection. But at these auctions we walk away with something we want: complex, underpaid legal work with often demanding clients who are at their wits end.
My bank manager always looks at me sideways when I explain that my average hourly rate for legal aid work is less than £75, while working for private clients I can generate somewhere between £250 to £350 an hour.
Aware that I could simply decline to bid I remind myself that working for legal aid clients was the very reason I went into the law 40 years ago. As a fresh-faced graduate I wanted to improve the lot of the homeless. I had an interest in the problems tenants faced at the hands of landlords who cared more about their rents than whether a flat was water-tight.
My memories of legal aid over the first 20 years of practice were happy ones. Forms were green, blue, and pink. We filled them in by hand and we became so adept at doing so that the process could be completed within minutes. We were not audited by the Legal Aid Board, but then again we were professionals and we were not being paid much money.
These days we are audited into the ground and the bureaucracy surrounding the grant of legal aid, very high cost cases, and the process of recovering money from the Legal Aid Agency has become complex, demoralising, and costly.
The majority of legal aid solicitors are honest, hard-working souls who are doing the work, not for a lavish pay packet but because they have a vocation. Given the choice of a City salary or continuing to do domestic violence injunctions or possession proceedings, most legal aid lawyers will continue to do the latter.
These lawyers care passionately about their clients. They want right to triumph over wrong and have an urge to protect the underdog. They are the Leicester City of the legal world: punching above their weight, winning often against the odds. That is why we do this work.
Our legal aid system was the best in the world. Delegations came from far and wide to study and replicate it. Sadly, it is now in decline. The number of solicitors doing legal aid work is falling and while there will still be those passionate enough to care, this side of the profession is badly paid.
So, I will make another bid for a legal aid contract. In a sense, I will (if successful) be getting something of inestimable value: a chance to help the underdogs and right wrongs. But it would be all so much better if the government realised that this essential, complex work should be properly paid. In that way, our long-held tradition of access to justice might be preserved.
Russell Conway is senior partner at Oliver Fisher