by Ian Lucas
The perennial argument between government and lawyers is with us again. The Today programme reverberates once more with the arguments of the government that too much is spent on legal aid and, on the other hand, by the legal profession, that the payments are necessary to maintain principled support for an independent legal system.
As a lawyer and former whip in the ministry of Justice, I know that both sides have right on their side. But this dialogue of the deaf must end. It serves no purpose.
I suggest that we adopt a simple principle to make public money work for the benefit of the legal profession and for society as a whole.
The amount paid by the British taxpayer to the legal profession is huge. It is a big mistake to believe that the money involved is limited to the legal aid budget – which in itself amounts to around £2.2 billion. On the contrary, most money is paid to firms who do not carry out legal aid work: to commercial firms of lawyers and to counsel and other legal advisers who provide specialist advice to the myriad of public authorities which exist in the UK.
These include local authorities, regulatory authorities, statutory undertakings and all of the other organisations set up to administer and deliver public services.
This gives an enormous amount of power to the purchaser of legal services, power which I believe should be directed to the public good. Procurement gives government an opportunity and government in its various forms, the biggest single procurer of legal services, needs to wake up to this fact.
One of the issues which should be addressed is access to the legal profession itself. Access is expensive and the profession is becoming less, not more, accessible, to those without a private income. We all know that the cost of higher education has tripled and, for a student hoping to be a lawyer, that is just the start. After a law degree is secured, the cost of a solicitor’s final exam place, necessary to qualify, is around £10,000 plus a year’s living expenses.
Training for the Bar is similarly costly. Both trainee solicitors and barristers must then seek ever diminishing numbers of training places, incurring more debt as they do so.
At the same time, expensive legal services are being paid for from the public purse. Some of the fees paid are astronomical. Some of the incomes of senior counsel and solicitors derived from legal aid are huge.
Like me, many of those lawyers qualified with a government grant. I received a full grant at university and also for my solicitors’ final examination, as it was then called.
The legal profession has an interest in the qualification of new lawyers. Society has an interest in ensuring that the lawyers are not selected on the basis of their parents’ wealth.
It is time for government to say that no payment of public money for legal services will be made unless the recipient pays a proportion of the money paid towards the cost of training new entrants to the profession for the future.
This would help create a fund, derived from the public purse, to ensure fair access to the legal profession. It will help ensure that we do not return to a legal profession reliant on private wealth and connections for its entrants.
I believe this a simple and fair proposal to make public money work better for the public good. I hope the legal profession will consider it.
Ian Lucas is Labour MP for Wrexham and shadow minister for Africa and the Middle East,