LAPG publishes the Legal Aid Census – the first piece of research of its kind to look at the social justice sector as a whole.
Unique research tells the story of legal aid lawyers across England and Wales – from entry to the profession, throughout their careers, and beyond. As legal aid deserts spread throughout the country this first comprehensive picture of the sector also charts the health and sustainability of the organisations providing legal advice on the frontline.
The Census was devised by independent legal academics from Glasgow School of Law and Cardiff University and launched in April 2021. It closed on 11 June with such a surfeit of quantitative and qualitative data that the team expanded with additional researchers from Monash University and the University of Oxford. We present the compelling results of their work below.
Today, Legal Aid Practitioners Group is publishing the 2021 Legal Aid Census report. Researched and written by an independent team of academics, the Census is the first of its kind to look at the backgrounds and lived experiences of all those working on the social justice frontline. There is a widely acknowledged lack of data to inform legal aid policy-making which has been a problem for many years. It is our hope that this data will form the baseline for policy-making around access to justice for years to come and that the Ministry of Justice will build upon this research and conduct further research of its own into the sustainability of the legal aid sector.
The Census demonstrates that legal aid practitioners are highly motivated and committed to their clients and to social justice. However, a lack of investment has caused significant issues across the legal aid sector, including:
- Considerable barriers for those seeking to enter the profession – from limited training opportunities to high levels of student debt that cannot be serviced by low salaries – this is creating a recruitment crisis across the sector
- Difficulties in retaining staff due to low salaries, a lack of career progression and a range of issues impacting adversely on staff wellbeing
- Fixed fees and hourly rates are too low and fail to reflect the complexity of the work, the vulnerabilities of clients, and the time taken to provide the services that clients require, leading practitioners to do unpaid work, work far longer than they are remunerated for and limiting the type of cases that can be taken on
These factors are primary reasons cited by practitioners for leaving legal aid and help to explain the steady exodus of lawyers and organisations from the sector over the last decade.
That is why we are today launching a campaign seeking greater investment in legal aid. The Census data, Westminster Commission report, Justice Committee report, Criminal Defence Data Compendium, Law Society advice desert maps, and Independent Criminal Legal Aid Review all provide the government with incontrovertible evidence that the legal aid sector is crisis. Indeed, the government’s own data (scant that it is) demonstrates a steady decline in both crime and civil provider numbers and a reduction in capacity across the whole sector, pointing to a sustainability crisis caused by decades of under-investment in legal aid. Crucially, this also equates to an access to justice crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people each year unable to get the advice and representation the need and deserve.
We have published an Open Letter to the Lord Chancellor, supported so far by 11 other sector bodies, calling on the government to:
- Commit to an immediate increase in civil and criminal legal aid fees, accounting for historical inflation, and index-linked in the future to ensure that fees increase in line with the cost of delivering services
- Give more people the opportunity to forge a career in legal aid through, for example, a return to government-funded training and qualification processes for both civil and criminal areas of law
- Establish an expert advisory panel to conduct further research on access to justice and sector sustainability, to inform future government policy on all aspects of legal aid
Now is the time for the government to stand up for legal aid, to support the practitioners who keep the justice system afloat, and to ensure that clients have meaningful access to justice.