Sir Andrew MacFarlane, the most senior family judge in England & Wales, has commented recently that “the justice system may be under stress, but it is the people propping it up who will collapse.” He recognised that legal aid practitioners are the key for people to access their human rights, and that they should not feel like “the Cinderella of the legal profession.”
MacFarlane goes on to recognise that legal aid work is undertaken “for the most modest rates of pay, but that does not seem to diminish lawyers’ commitment.” Rates have been squeezed year after year and are now significantly lower than when I first began practising family law.
Criminal legal aid is now much harder to obtain, and the rates are far lower than when I started practising in 2005. Should legal aid be easily accessible by criminals? Well, the right to a fair trial is a basic human right. Imagine being charged with a crime that you had not committed, legal aid not being available, not having the funds to secure representation, and not having the wherewithal to represent yourself. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
It is a common misconception that lawyers of any kind are only in it for the money. I have been a legal aid lawyer since 2005 and can very confidently say that it is not about the money for anyone practising in this field. Friends of mine who have taken the commercial route easily earn three times the salary of the average legal aid lawyer – if it was ever about the money, we would all be commercial lawyers.
The justice system is under considerable pressure, as is everyone working within it. Local Authorities are issuing more public law cases than ever before, with fewer social workers and Children’s Guardians managing caseloads containing more families. Trying to instruct a family barrister is increasingly difficult because they’re already in court balancing numerous cases. Court time is at a premium. Family lawyers are managing heavier caseloads and working longer hours. Personally, I have lost countless hours of sleep worrying about missing children, I have worked more weekends than not, I have missed a select preview screening of my favourite TV show and book, and I have worked until midnight on more than one occasion.
I am very lucky in that I work within a very supportive, caring firm that does not expect me to do these things, and I am immensely proud that The Family Law Company has such a clear, unwavering commitment to Legal Aid.
I do this out of passion for the cause, for Legal Aid, and for the people who need my help. Is the system sustainable whilst under this amount of pressure? Probably not. Will my peers and I keep it afloat with goodwill and passion? Undoubtedly.
To read more of what Sir Andrew said, click here.