Access to justice and diversity central to the future of legal services
The central role legal services can play in the national recovery from the pandemic should be advanced by a drive for greater access to justice for the most vulnerable – solicitors’ leaders warned in response to a report by supra-regulator the Legal Services Board (LSB).
The LSB’s State of Legal Services 2020 report examines how the sector has performed over the last decade, and identifies the need to widen public access to legal advice and support, as crucial elements of the government’s plans to ‘level-up’ the justice system.
The Law Society has long advocated for greater access to justice. As the LSB’s report notes, while some regulatory intervention may help, many consumers will not have the means to fund their legal services costs, no matter how competitively priced it is, making public funding absolutely crucial to ensure early and effective advice.
Our Legal Needs survey demonstrated that there is overwhelming public support for legal aid, yet legal aid provision in many areas is disappearing in large parts of England and Wales, creating legal aid deserts. Help for people that the government agrees should be available is simply not there.
Current trends show that within 5 to 10 years there will not be enough criminal legal aid solicitors to sustain the duty solicitor schemes in many regions.*
The crux of the legal aid problem is funding. There have been no rates increases for criminal and civil legal aid since the 1990s, and legal aid fees have decreased by 34% in real terms since 1998. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) civil legal aid cuts reduced the areas of law for which legal aid was available.
Law Society of England and Wales president David Greene said: “The LASPO implementation review resulted in several promising proposals to improve civil legal aid. There is ongoing work on the Criminal Legal Aid Review, with recommendations due to be published in 2021, but progress has been slow and hindered by COVID-19.”
Diversity in the profession is also examined in today’s report, with the LSB arguing that a “step-change” is required for the legal sector.
David Greene said: “We have long recognised the need to drive greater diversity in the profession and we have been working hard to address this issue.
“Earlier this month, we published new research with Cardiff University on how disabled lawyers have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, finding that remote and flexible working with reasonable adjustments could make the legal profession more accessible.
“We are also publishing shortly our research on the experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors’ experiences. Our data was gathered with input from our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division and will explore the career experiences of those from minority groups. This evidence base will provide an important basis for the next phase of our work.”
The LSB raises the issue of clients being able to shop around for their legal representation.
“An area which is often overlooked is low public legal literacy and confidence. Making people aware of how to recognise legal issues and from whom to seek help could increase people’s access to justice and reduce unmet demand.”
“Transparency reforms have been in force since 2018 and a wide range of solicitors are now displaying their prices on their websites. We know people consider a range of other factors including the complexity of the issue and the quality of the service when choosing a solicitor,” said David Greene.
“As we near the end of a second national lockdown in England and face new tiered restrictions in the lead up to Christmas, the LSB reflected that legal services will be crucial to the nation’s recovery from the pandemic, since they underpin a well-functioning economy, the rule of law and the fabric of our society.
“I and the Law Society are immensely proud of the outstanding job our solicitor members have done to support the public during this difficult period, with advocates, criminal defence, wills, probate, family and human rights solicitors stepping up as ‘key workers’ to ensure the justice system keeps running.”
Notes for editors
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Press office contact: Naomi Jeffreys | Naomi.Jeffreys@lawsociety.org.uk | 020 8049 3928