Battle continues in the fight to reinstate minimum salary for trainees
If not cruel, April was an important - and busy - month for junior legal aid lawyers, writes Emmeli Sundqvist
April was an important month for legal aid lawyers across the country, as the client and cost management system (CCMS) was made mandatory for all new civil legal aid applications and the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal to rule that the proposed residence test for civil legal aid is unlawful.
On 1 April 2016, the third anniversary of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) coming into force, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) joined other representative groups in calling for the government to assess the impact of the legal aid cuts at the earliest opportunity.
We also saw the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquest, with justice for the families of the 96 people who lost their lives made possible by public funding for their legal representation at the inquest. Unfortunately, the government maintains that legal aid should only be provided for grieving families at inquests in very limited circumstances, on the basis that inquests are not an 'adversarial' process. Anyone who has attended an inquest in which the conduct of a public authority is called into question will surely dispute this.
1 April 2016 was also the date the government introduced a new mandatory national living wage (NLW) for workers aged 25 and above. Its aim is to boost the incomes of many of the UK's most poorly paid employees, as well as support the government's vision of a higher wage, lower welfare, and lower tax society. All workers aged 25 and over are now legally entitled to be paid at least £7.20 per hour.
However, the NLW should not be confused with the living wage (LW), which is calculated by the basic cost of living in the UK, by the Living Wage Foundation. According to the Living Wage Foundation, the current UK LW is £8.25 an hour, while the London LW is £9.40 an hour.
In October 2013, YLAL published a report called 'Social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector: One step forward, two steps back'. Our research found that 13 per cent of respondents earned less than £15,000, either as paralegals or pupil barristers, while half of respondents - including a significant number of trainee solicitors - earned less than £20,000.
Our report, therefore, called for the Solicitors Regulation Authority to reinstate the minimum salary for trainee solicitors as a means to ensure the profession is sustainable in the long-term and accessible to people from all backgrounds. We welcomed the decision by the Law Society late last year to set a recommended minimum salary for trainee solicitors based on the LW, plus the average annual legal practice course repayment.
In addition, YLAL is in the process of preparing an updated social mobility and diversity report, which will aim to reflect the current demographic of the profession and the earnings and debt of young legal aid lawyers in England and Wales. As our last report was prepared very shortly after the implementation of LASPO, we hope this new research will help demonstrate the impact of legal aid cuts upon the profession. It will also be interesting to see whether the NLW and the Law Society's recommended minimum salary for trainee solicitors have resulted in improved salaries for junior lawyers in the legal aid sector.