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Legal Aid

So Lord Bach has decided to go ahead with the proposed cuts to family legal aid. The Times has reported that, in some cases, this will result in up to a 50% reduction in fees to legal professionals who are representing some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Admittedly, the new system (which won’t come into effect until Autumn 2010), has tried to take into account the criticisms of the FLBA by introducing more graduation into the scheme, so certain types of hearings will be paid more depending on their complexity.

However, as someone about to embark on a career at the Family Bar, I am still extremely concerned. The publicly funded cases are exactly the type of cases that are given to the junior Bar to ‘cut their teeth’ on. Pupillage itself is very poorly remunerated (certainly compared with training contracts in the City), not to mention student debts and the HUGE amount one has to pay to take the Bar Vocational Course. What sort of message does this send out to the young, aspiring law student who has his/her heart set on a career at the Family Bar? As the Kings College research showed, Family barristers are anything but ‘fat cats’. OK there are a few QC’s at the top who are earning vast sums off the big money cases in the Lords, but that makes up a very small proportion of the work of the Family Bar. Certainly in care proceedings and domestic violence work, Counsel is paid very little to represent an individual who simply cannot afford to pay their own legal fees. And after receiving a cheque from the LSC, Counsel has to pay their own travel costs (often having to travel to some obscure court out in the sticks), AND pay their fees to Chambers (how else do you expect the clerks to get paid!?).

Of course, it is not just the young Bar that will suffer. The people who use the legal aid system are some of the most vulnerable people in society. To put it bluntly, they are on the bottom rung of the ladder. In a nutshell, the concern is this: pay peanuts, get monkeys. Is it fair for you to only get an inexperienced, only moderately competent barrister just because you’re on legal aid? of course not!!! That would be like saying people on the NHS don’t deserve competent doctors treating them. But inevitably, if the work is not economically viable for the barrister, many of them simply won’t do it. That’s not because they want to cherrypick the more lucrative cases (indeed, we are not allowed to do this anyway). It is because, with everything else barristers have to pay as self-employed advocates, it will simply not make financial sense for them to continue doing this sort of work.

A very bad week for family legal aid!

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