New government must take justice issues seriously, says junior lawyers
Charlotte Parkinson, the new chair of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) and a solicitor at Addleshaw Goddard challenges the incoming Conservative government to fix the UK’s justice system
It is of the utmost importance that the new government puts the future of our justice system firmly on the agenda.
Cuts to legal aid over many years have resulted in a significant shortage of criminal lawyers and duty solicitors, as a career in criminal law is becoming unsustainable for the next generation of lawyers.
The JLD is concerned that the cuts to legal aid fees mean that the already reducing number of legal aid firms do not have the resources to offer training contracts to junior lawyers.
If fewer solicitors are qualifying into legal aid, this will have a significant impact on individuals who cannot afford to pay to have access to justice.
The cuts to legal aid fees have had an astronomically negative impact on access to justice in England and Wales, both for victims and the accused.
The number of junior lawyers going into legally aided areas of practice, and the number of legal aid firms offering training contracts for junior lawyers, are both massively decreasing.
All junior lawyers typically leave education and start their training contracts with a similar amount of debt after their years of studying.
If they can obtain a legal aid training contract, the salaries are significantly less in comparison to salaries offered in other areas of law (or even doing typical legal aid work within a different organisation, for example, prosecuting criminals at the Crown Prosecution Service as opposed to defending criminals through a legal aid contract).
This profession is losing out on talent as juniors choose what they perceive as more attractive, more lucrative careers with better prospects.
Consequently, there is a growing shortage of duty solicitors available to assist the most vulnerable in our society to access justice.
Data published by the Law Society shows that in five to ten years’ time, we will not have enough criminal duty solicitors in many parts of the country, leaving people accused of crimes unable to enforce their rights.
The Law Society published data in April 2018 outlining the average age of a duty solicitor in England and Wales was 47 years.
To make matters worse, there has been a 36 per cent drop in law firms with a criminal legal aid contract in the last 10 years.
The solution starts at the top, with government putting more funding back into the legal system and ensuring that there is a rise in the legal aid fees, together with a guarantee that there are no future real terms cuts.
This needs to be a priority for the new government.
One only has to read The Secret Barrister to hear stories which are all too familiar to those working at the coal face in legal aid.
The civil justice system has also seen cuts in funding resulting in court closures and a lack of access to the courts for some of society’s most vulnerable.
Our courts are overstretched with many working to a shocking back log.
One of the proposals to assist the crisis so far has been to introduce a flexible operating hours pilot meaning that courts open for longer hours.
The JLD believes that the previous government’s flexible court opening hours pilot will have a more negative impact on junior lawyers than any other demographic in the profession, as our members will be the ones expected to attend the early and or late hearings.
It will also be detrimental to those members with caring responsibilities.
This therefore puts additional pressure on these juniors to work longer hours (outside of the usual 9 to 5) and yet still do all the pre and post work that is expected in relation to hearings - not to mention client care and follow up work.
The JLD hopes that the new government will take these issues seriously when considering its policies in future.
Jurisdiction of choice
We support the Law Society's campaign to urge government to secure a future relationship with the EU that allows lawyers to continue to practise and base themselves in the EU, to ensure that our jurisdiction does not risk losing and missing out on the best talent.
Any Brexit negotiations should ensure that junior lawyers are able to continue to choose England and Wales as their jurisdiction of choice for legal practice and maintain the international trust in our jurisdiction.