British law in an era of retrenchment: Access denied…

Legal Eagle 

Image © Cawi2001-Carsten Wieman

Who would want to be a junior solicitor at the moment? It appears many would answer this question in the affirmative. This is odd given the incredibly difficult road they must follow in order to qualify, a situation made worse if you have no legal connections and come from a working class background. The vast majority of junior solicitors only succeed by amassing huge debts used to finance the myriad of academic and professional courses. To meet the criteria you must gain a training contract, these are usually applied for during the LPC, or at the academic stage whilst undergoing the LLB or GDL course. Gaining a training contract has always been highly competitive, though the current economic downturn means significantly fewer contracts are available. This makes qualifying, which has always been an arduous process almost impossible to achieve. In 2008 for example, many firms simply withdrew their training contracts, with dire professional consequences for those who had applied. More disturbing, is the prevalence of law firms currently offering candidates applying for training contracts, non-paid internships as an inducement, the first run on the ladder for consideration as a trainee.

There is of course no guarantee that a training contract will emerge at the end of this period, lasting from 3 to 6 months. Remember this work is voluntary and often based in expensive urban areas. This is a public scandal and nothing short of exploitation. Zero-hours contracts are one thing but in the UK a huge professional class are working for wealthy firms gratis. And the legal profession is not looking this gift horse of free labour in the mouth. Those from a working class background, desperate enough to go down this route, are usually in substantial debt. Yet they are expected to present themselves daily for work whilst in a state of penury. Even the law clerks depicted by Dickens, earned a wage, halcyon days by comparison to what appears to be going on today. What next? We are surely near the stage in the UK, where employees actually pay employers to allow them the privilege to work for nothing.

Of course, if you are lucky enough to have personal wealth and family connections then it`s not too bad – no change there then. But this is hardly the sign of a legal profession open to all the socio-economic classes. Only those with substantial financial resources can realistically consider working in a voluntary capacity, so this situation suits a middle class cohort. Law firms are obviously more likely to offer internees a training contract because it will motive other recruits to go through the same exploitative process; precedent is a big feature of the law. This doesn’t exactly conform to a sound culture of equal opportunities, as law firms ditch diversity recruiting the wealthiest, not the most able. Even within this scenario one still hears of people failing to get a training contract, finding themselves in other unpaid or paralegal work, this time with the voluntary sector. One can always recognise the winners at the starting gate in Britain, it equates with social class, ethnicity and where one went to school or University.

If you are lucky enough to get a training contract, what kind of legal system might you end up working in? The Jackson reforms to civil law are encapsulated in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LAPSO). Part II of this legislation deals with civil law and its provisions. These reforms (shamefully commissioned by the previous Labour government) will significantly reduce working people`s access to justice. The Labour Research Department has undertaken a thorough examination of this legislation and cite Unite’s director of legal and affiliated services Howard Beckett: “The LASPO reforms will make it a real challenge for people injured through no fault of their own to find lawyers prepared to represent them unless their case is very straightforward, and if they do they face deductions from their damages.” The implications for those seeking justice are of course significantly impacted by this legislation, whilst at the same time placing a huge strain on the legal profession, especially junior solicitors. They will be the professional group dealing with applications making decisions about matters of justice. The reforms will of course limit the volume of work, making professional tenure less secure, whilst paradoxically seeing the rise of pro bono work. Some solicitors may take up worthy claims frozen out of the system by this legislation.

Even more worrying is the proposed changes in the criminal legal aid system. This situation coming to light after the Ministry of Justice set up a consultation process. This has recently led to a campaign by the pressure group 38 Degrees, who this week encouraged people to sign a petition to halt the proposed changes. It was reported earlier this week that 40,000 people had signed. The pressure group highlighted the Coalitions proposal to take away from an accused person the right to choose their legal representation i.e. the best legal representative available to facilitate justice. And instead forcing people to opt for the cheapest legal services available. Such a proposal strikes at the very heart of British justice and also potentially at the ancient custom of the `cab rank principle`. 38 Degrees point out that private non-law specialist business interest will be encouraged to compete for this work, to provide justice in our criminal jurisdiction. Thus far various companies have come forward to bid including the trucking company Eddie Stobart, Serco and G4S. The 38 Degrees petition to protest this proposal was initiated by the current chair of the Bar Council and 38 Degrees member Maura McGowan. As 38 Degree point out, `But access to justice isn’t the only thing at stake here. It’s another move by the government to privatise vital services. Companies like G45 and Serco are expected to bid on these contracts. These groups already have worrying ties to our prisons and police force – do we really want them representing us in court as well? `

In opposition the Conservative Party reacquainted itself with constitutional law and waxed lyrical about the rule of law and the cherished British tradition of Justice. Out of office they harked back to Magna Carta but it`s difficult to reconcile this rhetoric with these new proposals, as the rule of law becomes a victim in this era of retrenchment.


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