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Time to abolish legal aid?

Lawyers have a reputation for being money grabbing bastards of the lowest level.  It is quite clear when you speak to some people that they cannot differentiate the criminal defence lawyer from the drug dealer or violent husband whom they represent.  I gather this is much the same for soap-opera actors who must put up with being treated as their characters as they shop for underpants.

The current campaign by lawyers of both main legal professions against the legal aid reforms is mostly being ignored by the general public and the media.  But, when the public do hear of it many seem to take the view that the campaign is a fight by lawyers protecting their own income.

The truth is that if lawyers got into the legal aid game to make quick and easy cash then they are fools because legal aid has never been well paid in comparison to other areas of privately funded law. 

More telling is the fact that so many lawyers oppose the government’s legal aid reforms.  If lawyers of both professions were interested solely in money rather than justice, the justice system and the interests of their clients’ and society then they would be campaigning against legal aid being available to anybody.  In fact, lawyers did campaign against the introduction of legal aid in the 1940s (I seem to recall legal aid as we know it appeared around 1949 along with the NHS) because they feared that the lower fees would result in a brain drain from the profession that would lead to a reduction in quality.

Today, lawyers who are only interested in money would not want legal aid for anybody.  They would be fighting against the legal aid system and in favour of individuals financing their own cases.  We could make extra cash by flogging punters (or more likely their families) lovely finance deals.  Would we get paid?  Of course we would.  Look at how many people are willing to spend vast sums just to keep their driving licence.  Imagine what you would spend to avoid missing the next 4-years of your child’s life.  In the USA people risk bankruptcy to avoid prison; there’s no reason to think the British wouldn't pay up to stay free.

It might result in slightly less firms, but I suspect that the remaining firms would be larger and so the number of individual solicitors would probably be roughly similar, all earning vastly higher salaries.  Solicitors being paid privately to litigate would probably be less inclined to conduct their own advocacy so there would be less threat to the independent Bar from solicitor-advocates (like me) and from the employed Bar.

Conversely, there would be a large section of society who had little or no access to the justice system; people who did not receive the benefit of professional legal advice when facing a criminal allegation.  But, if lawyers were only interested in money they why would we all care about some bloke we've never met being falsely accused of rape or murder or burglary or whatever?

The total abolition of legal aid would be good for prosecutors too.  With soaring incomes in the private sector, the public sector would have to increase their salaries to retain their staff.

But, no lawyer is campaigning to abolish legal aid.  Most are campaigning to keep legal aid and retain a system that allows them to receive a reasonable income for doing a very difficult and complex job representing what are often very difficult individuals. 

This is why when you hear lawyers saying that legal aid is necessary, should be retained and is good value for money you can trust what they say… because, lawyers interests would be much better served by doing away with legal aid altogether!


  1. Non-lawyers like my goodself [sic] can easily distinguish between lawyers and their clients. We can also make another distinction, better than many lawyers, namely that between

    (1) the law as a means of settling disputes and, as such, an admirable construction of civilisation and

    (2) the law as a means of providing comfortable careers for lawyers. Jonathan Sumption, anyone?

    1. Ed (not Bystander)16 May 2013 at 03:46

      "Comfortable careers" for lawyers. Do you know the rates of publically funded pay for lawyers?

    2. From what I hear (£100 a day?), the rates are about what a post-doc in the sciences will make. A post-doc is, typically, in their late 20s, has no job security and can expect to change countries at least twice before either finding such security or leaving science. My point is not to whine about how hard it is to be a scientist (science is a wonderful life) but to show why the arguments that lawyers are making about the problems with legal aid are unconvincing. Especially they fail to convince those of us who know that law is important to society but also see very very rich lawyers not give anything back to the law, by, for example, doing legal aid work for free one day a week.

    3. Ed (not Bystander)16 May 2013 at 14:00

      Excellent. Please tell us:
      * how many of these "very very rich" lawyers there are
      * what proportion of lawyers they represent
      * how "very very rich" they actually are
      * what the median income for all lawyers is
      * what the mean income for all lawyers is

      You know, since you're a "scientist" and everything.


      "...most Clifford Chance partners are on more than £1m, with plateau partners making £1.24m."

      "Self Employed barrister typically earn between £25,000 and £300,000 leading up to 10 years service after this point th typical earning ranges increase from £65,000 to £1,000,000."

      While any lawyers at all (let alone "most partners") are making that kind of money you will struggle to convince the rest of us that you have a problem. Even if you refrain from infantile sarcasm. So here's a suggestion: you lay out the facts and figures that support your case. If you want to convince non-lawyers, the burden is on you.

    5. Ed (not Bystander)17 May 2013 at 01:13

      Dear genius,

      Which of the 5 questions I asked is that purporting to have answered?

      Starting to see why you failed to make it as a scientist.


    6. Xerxes, Clifford Chance are one of the world's biggest law firms. They operate throughout the world. No part of their organisation has anything whatsoever to do with legal aid! Also, I believe that Jonathan Sumpton QC made his cash in private law, not legal aid! The figures you quote for barristers relate to non-legal aid counsel.

      Legal aid solicitors are not paid per day so do not earn £100 per day. When considering legal aid rates the point is to look at the fees earned by the firm before you consider the individual salaries. The notional rate for London legal aid firms is £49.70 per hour, if I remember correctly. In reality the hourly rate means nothing as firms are paid by the case. A lower standard fee trial in the magistrates court currently attracts a fee of something like £340 - not totally sure of the exact current rate but I know it's reduced since I ceased running a legal aid firm. That £340 includes all of the work done on the case, all of the preparation, all of the court attendances, all of the travel and all of the waiting (which at court can be considerable). In my experience, a magistrates' court trial takes between 12 - 15 hours to properly prepare and present, I'm no maths genius but even I can work out that is an hourly rate of between £28.33 and £22.67. Now remember that the firm has to pay all the normal business expenses of any other business, but also has additional costs, e.g. several thousand pound in professional indemnity insurance, several thousand more to the Law Society for recognition as a law firm, very expensive minimum levels of training, etc.

      You should quickly realise that the fees being paid to law firms is very low in comparison to their outgoings. The legal aid changes will cut the fees below the level at which the vast majority of firms can break even, never mind make a profit. When this happens firms must save money. In a law firm the most expensive component is staffing, because lawyers are very highly qualified. However, unqualified paralegals are relatively cheap. How will firms make savings? Switch expensive and qualified lawyers for cheap unqualified paralegals.

      The switch has already begun. When I started out I was the only paralegal in a firm, which had about 10 qualified solicitors and barristers employed. Now it's not uncommon to find the unqualified in the majority and actually running cases with very little supervision.

  2. Unfortunately, idiots like xerxes are the type of people listened-to, not rational people like you.

  3. I`m sure what the average person would like to see is some kind of means test after any preliminary hearing.
    Does this already exist?

    1. Yes all legal aid is means tested.

      If the police release you on bail you will have to have legal aid in place BEFORE the first hearing or find a generous solicitor who is willing to attend without funding - actually that is surprisingly easy.

      In the magistrates' court, pretty much anybody who works is unlikely to get legal aid, although the very lowest paid can qualify,.

      In the Crown Court, people are means tested and those thought to be able to pay are made to pay a contribution towards their defence. I've said in another post that this amount is capped at £900 per month, but somebody else has commented to say that they were charged £2,000 per month!


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