A newly published report “Running on Empty” from the Bar Council, which represents all barristers in England and Wales, reveals the severity of problems in the civil legal aid system.

The report, which is based on a series of interviews with barristers and clerks, finds that the role of a barrister, in a climate of underfunding of public services, has been forced to stand in for roles that should have been done by other public services. One participant who works on inquests described the role as “you are half social worker, half handler, part counsellor and then advocate.”

Civil legal aid barristers, as outlined in the report, can feel underappreciated, but to feel attacked by government, as they recently have, is a new and worrying development.

One interviewee said: “I think they, the government, does literally see those who practice in legal aid as just a thorn in their side, and they even seek to undermine them by calling them “activist” lawyers, the lawyers who are representing people and defending their rights in a politically sensitive area.”

Key findings:

  • There is a serious problem with inequality of arms when it comes to bereaved families being represented at inquests. A bereaved family is likely to be represented by one junior barrister who, despite best efforts, has not had the time or resource to fully familiarise themselves with the background, get to know the family, investigate the case, and is in court facing a number of more senior practitioners representing state agencies.
  • The widespread closures of advice centres and high street solicitors, and increased pressure on those that remain, have seriously impacted the Bar.
  • Practitioners are having to compensate for the reduction in fee income by taking more cases and working longer hours, leading to a stressful and last-minute working culture.
  • Processes at the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) feel obtuse and complicated. There is a widespread perception of a “culture of refusal” at the LAA.
  • Unsustainability for barristers coming in at the junior end, and problems with retention and career development, particularly from those without independent financial means.

Chair of the Bar Council, Derek Sweeting QC said: “Our report finds a civil legal aid system running on an empty tank, kept going by nothing more than the goodwill of the legal profession. This is not a sustainable way to guarantee the future of such an essential service for the public.

“The Bar Council has consistently called for a reversal of LASPO, which took many areas of legal aid funding out of scope. Eight years later, we continue to see its damaging effects. We now find ourselves pleading for the bare minimum. We urge the Government to heed the findings of this report and seek to meet the Bar’s commitment to social duty and access to justice with some proper investment in, and respect for, the justice system.”

Read the short report summary here.

Read the full report here.


Notes to editors

  1. Press contact: [email protected] / 07432 731901.
  2. Civil law covers areas that are essential to afair and functioning society, including housing, immigration, employment, clinical negligence and inquests.
  3. Quotes from interviewees:
  • In describing how it felt working within a system where the early legal advice sector has been seriously undermined, Zia Nabi outlined: “If we have inequality of arms, and that’s what I see in my time at the Bar, no-one wins. What you end up with is an unhappier society and more social problems. You know, people feel that they don’t have a voice. So, everyone I work with is driven in that sense.”
  • Stephanie Harrison QC: “I think they, the government, does literally see those who practice in legal aid as  just a thorn in their side, and they even seek to undermine them by calling them “activist” lawyers, the lawyers who are representing people and defending their rights in a politically sensitive area. So this is a new and dangerous development of delegitimising and vilifying lawyers who seek to hold the government to account – this is described as being activist but in my view it’s just doing your job to the best of your ability.”
  • If legal aid solicitors are not there, legal need does not get picked up, as people cannot find their way to legal representation. Legal aid barristers, therefore, do not get work. Abid Mahmood, public law barrister described the impact of this: “That is a shame because, just as in medicine, law is not always about getting the best returns for each pound. Sometimes it will cost a huge amount of money to give a person an extra year of life. Similarly, sometimes it will cost a large amount of money to fight a wrong approach by a local government or central government department.”
  • Ella Davies, housing practitioner in Leeds: “I was working at the law centre when it [LASPO] first came in so I saw the most devastating effects to those primary services as we lost our welfare benefits advisor. We could not fund them anymore. The strain was put on us as housing advisors where a very, very, very high proportion of our clients actually had welfare benefit problems which had led to the housing problems and because of the legal aid contract, we could not help them with the benefit problem. We could only do that if we did it pro bono separately on the side and that was really, really difficult.  You can’t deal with someone’s housing problem if you can’t deal with their welfare benefit problem or their employment problem or their immigration problem.”
  • Andrew Bridgman, a Manchester clinical negligence practitioner and assistant coroner who was a dentist before being called to the Bar, describes the impulse to practice law: “[It’s] not about money for me and it’s not all about getting damages for patients, although it’s helpful…I meet a lot of variety of society obviously and helping them find answers to what happened inside prison…when their son or daughter’s died... So that’s where it comes from, I think, that’s what keeps me in it.”
  • As Rachel Francis, a family and immigration practitioner noted for her work with vulnerable clients, articulated when describing how it felt right at the beginning of her career: “It was – and is – very fatiguing to have to battle all the time. Battle for all your clients to get funded, battle in court, battle with limited resources, and battle to retain the limited resources that are still available for vulnerable clients… “