In 2019, the long awaited LASPO post-implementation review deemed the legal aid market to be ‘operating at sufficient levels to meet demand’, adding that ‘more research is required to determine the long-term sustainability of the profession’ (para 816, p 195). While some information on practitioners and organisations has been shared by the Bar Council, Law Society and Crown Prosecution Service (resulting in the publication of a data compendium about criminal legal aid), this research by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) hasn’t been forthcoming. Nor does it appear that there is any intention of looking at the legal aid system as a whole; a marketplace of need, supply and demand.  

This time last year, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) decided that something different was needed a census that sought data on every single legal aid practitioner in England and Wales. Every barrister, solicitor, legal executive, paralegal, clerk, caseworker and manager working in publicly funded law. All of those aspiring to join the profession and those who have made the decision to leave it. We want to reach every one of you to build a comprehensive picture of what life is like on the legal aid frontline; to gather demographic information but also to seek to understand issues like the connection between fee levels and commercial viability, retention and succession planning; the path that each practitioner took into the profession; the working conditions in practice and their intentions regarding it. We need to know who the people are who make up the provider base and what it will look like in the years to come.

The data that we have isn’t clear. But we know that in 2013 there were 1,592 firms with criminal legal aid contracts (Legal Services Commission, Annual Report and Accounts 2012-13 (HC337, 31.3.2013) p 16). By March 2021 this had dropped to 1,104 (Alex Chalk MP, Written Questions: Legal Aid Scheme: Contracts (UIN 166396, 16.3.2021))  a loss of 488. Similarly, in 2013 there were 1,881 firms with contracts in civil legal aid. Eight years on and there are 1,445  a reduction of 436. This may be due to a number of reasons, but we lack the data to tell us.

The Legal Aid Census is open

Over the past six months, we have been working with academics from Newcastle University, Cardiff University and University College London to create and refine the census to make it as user-friendly as possible. A pilot phase was completed over January and February and the census itself launched on 12 April via social media, representative body networks, and academic institutions. Practitioners can complete the survey online and are being asked to answer questions in the following capacities:

  • as managers/owners within legal aid organisations;
  • as legal aid fee-earners;
  • as students and those trying to join the legal aid profession;
  • as former legal aid practitioners who have chosen to leave the sector.

The census is open from April to June and the academic team will then spend the summer anonymising and analysing the data before reporting in early autumn.

We believe this to be the most ambitious survey ever undertaken into legal aid and its timing could not be more crucial. Data from the census will feed into both Sir Christopher Bellamy QC’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid and the MOJ’s upcoming review of the sustainability of civil and family legal aid. The research is closely aligned to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid’s sustainability inquiry. Please support us by getting involved: we need the whole legal aid community to stand up and be counted.