The Legal Aid Census – there’s strength in numbers

It’s been a demoralising few years in legal aid policy. After a series of delays the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) commenced a formal process to the long-awaited LASPO Post-Implementation Review (PIR), meeting extensively with practitioners from across the sector and reading the vast swathes of post LASPO literature and evidence amassed on their behalf. There was a huge amount of engagement with and sector buy-in and perhaps a certain amount of hope. That issues would be recognised and things might improve.  LAPG held a conference at the time to bring together practitioners from the coalface from all corners of the sector to give their evidence to the civil servants in charge of the review. Over 200 practitioners came together to share their lived experience and I was struck, as I often am, by the vastness of this sector. Too often we consider ourselves as solicitors, or barristers, family lawyers or criminal defence practitioners and not part of a bigger whole. Those with a vocation to make society better. To champion the vulnerable and to give a voice to those in need. Activist Lawyers, without any of the negative political connotations that the term carries with it.

You’ll know by now the conclusion of this particular tale. In 2019 the PIR deemed the legal aid market to be “operating at sufficient levels to meet demand” adding that “more research is required to determine the long-term sustainability of the profession”.[1] Over and over again we have been told of the absence of government systems to collect reliable, comprehensive data. The onus is thrown back onto beleaguered providers to gather the information that the government lack to truly understand client need and the viability of ‘the market’. Whilst some information on practitioners and organisations has since been shared by The Law Society, Bar Council and CPS (resulting in the publication of a data compendium about criminal legal aid[2], this research by the MoJ hasn’t been forthcoming. Nor does it appear that there is any intention of looking at the legal aid system as a whole. A marketplace of need, supply and demand.

This time last year, we decided that something different was needed. We wanted evidence that viewed the crime and civil legal aid ecosystem as a whole. Data on every single legal aid practitioner in England and Wales. Every barrister, solicitor, legal executive, paralegal, clerk, caseworker and manager working in publicly funded law. All of those aspiring to join the profession and those who have made the decision to leave it. We want to reach every one of them to build a comprehensive picture of what life on the legal aid frontline is like; to gather demographic information but also seek to understand issues like the connection between fee levels and commercial viability, retention and succession planning. The path that each practitioner took into the profession, the working conditions in practice and their intentions regarding it. We need to know who the people are who make up the provider base and what it will look like in the years to come.

After a year of planning we have now launched the Legal Aid Census – the largest ever cross-sector research project about the legal aid workforce.  We have thrown our own resources into this because having robust, irrefutable data about who is doing legal aid and the challenges that that entails seems now to be the only way to convince government of the need for major reforms and significant investment. We are grateful for backing from The Legal Education Foundation and from Barings Foundation. Critically, we have assembled a team of independent researchers from the universities of Cardiff, Newcastle and UCL who have designed the research instrument and will analyse the results.

The census will run from 12 April to 11 June and the academic team will then spend the summer analysing the data before reporting in early autumn. This will be a crucial element of our response to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid and to influence the MOJ’s incipient review of the sustainability of civil and family legal aid. It is closely aligned to the ongoing All-Party Parliamentary Group’s Westminster Commission on the Sustainability of Legal Aid.

Momentum for positive change is building as the sector continues to suffer from decades of underinvestment and the brutal consequences of the pandemic. There may even be political appetite as society and the government seek to rebuild. The MOJ is aware that many providers are on their knees and that those needing legal help are routinely falling through the cracks. For some time now we have had a ministerial team that understand the issues. But we do not want to be undermined by a lack of robust data as has befallen so many campaigns in the past. So we need everyone across the sector to come together once more in support of this initiative.  If you are a legal aid lawyer or support someone who is, please participate in the census and provide us with the data we need to convince the government to act now to save legal aid. Please give us your numbers so that we can come together and be counted.

Rohini Teather is head of parliamentary affairs at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/post-implementation-review-of-part-1-of-laspo, para 816, p195

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/independent-review-of-criminal-legal-aid

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