An issue of huge and growing concern for anyone who cares about social justice is where the next generation of barristers and solicitors will come from. It sits within the wider context of what the profession will look like and how the system will work in the years to come.

These are just some of the questions that the Westminster Commission on Legal Aid is seeking to answer. Launched in October 2020 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid the Inquiry panel comprises Karen Buck MP, James Daly MP (as Chair and Vice-Chair respectively), Baroness Helena Kennedy, Baroness Natalie Bennett, Lords Colin Low and Willy Bach, Gareth Bacon MP, Andy Slaughter MP, Daisy Cooper MP and Yvonne Fovargue MP. The Inquiry was conceived in response to an absence of concrete data around the legal aid workforce since LASPO was passed. Before LASPO, much of the evidence about how the legal aid system operated in practice was collected by the now defunct Legal Services Research Centre. Cuts to the legal aid budget mean that this data is no longer collated, and despite the number of Commissions and research projects which have looked at legal aid and the ability to access legal advice, there is an absence of centralised data about providers themselves. This was concerning before the pandemic but is alarming in the new economic climate.

The panel will be working with academics from Cardiff, Newcastle and UCL Universities to conduct research into the legal aid workforce. We will be launching the most ambitious survey of its kind in March 2021 after completing a pilot study commencing in January 2021. The survey aims to reach students and would-be practitioners, practitioners in all areas of social welfare law, and crucially, practitioners who have left legal aid in the last ten years. Complementary to this work will be six oral evidence sessions with our Parliamentarian panel, members of the Ministry of Justice and the Shadow Justice team. These were intended to highlight some of the key issues that the Inquiry will focus on: fees that don’t cover the cost of providing a service; hugely complex, demanding work for vulnerable clients; sticking plaster solutions that do nothing to address the systemic need for change. That was the intention, but somehow they go far further. There is power and pathos in the stories that we are hearing, and in their own way they are a love letter to the profession itself.

I am writing this on the cusp of our third session which will revolve around public law and civil legal aid at a time when attacks on ‘lefty, activist lawyers’ by the Home Office and the popular press have become commonplace. We are all aware of the need for an ideological change in society’s perception of the law. Despite attending court throughout the first lockdown, opening clinics and continuing to provide a service throughout the pandemic and being recognised by the government as a frontline service, lawyers are rarely treated as such. We do this work in order to uphold the principle that all are equal before the law and are entitled, without discrimination, to its protection. If that public perception changed, perhaps the system would receive the investment that it needs. But I would also argue that there is a need for change within the profession. All too often there is a tendency to see ourselves as part of a particular tribe; of family, housing, immigration, crime practitioners, barristers, solicitors, paralegals, legal executives. But many of the issues are systemic and there is a real need to see ourselves as part of the whole and working together to change them.

So what have we been hearing to date? As you might expect, there has been a large focus on remuneration, and the need for it properly to reflect the work that is done on a case; to be lifted in line with inflation; and to take account of the thousands of pages that are read in preparation for a case. There is a certain taboo about speaking of rates, not assisted by the portrayal of lawyers as ‘fat cats’ but there is surely merit in determining that for a young lawyer to make this a viable and sustainable career, they must be able to earn a specific amount of money from legal aid fees. If they don’t, there will continue to be a drain of talent towards more lucrative practices. A large part of the Inquiry’s focus has also been on the barriers to practise, whether that’s ethnic, socio-economic, at entry level or at a more senior stage of a career. We have heard from a number of witnesses from BAME backgrounds and also those from different financial backgrounds. We congratulate ourselves on appointing individuals of colour onto panels and into roles within organisations. Yet true diversity is far more complex than this and there are no easy fixes. We know that where some areas of the profession are struggling to recruit juniors, in others there is a surplus of law graduates who want to become barristers and very few places in chambers for pupils. There’s also a much wider structural issue about who is actually able to access the profession. It has become enormously expensive to become a barrister, on top of the tens of thousands of pounds that students will spend on their undergraduate degree. The training course, as it’s now called, costs around £15-20k in London. This is a huge sum of money to invest with the possibility that there might not be a job at the end of it, in this most competitive of fields. More support is often needed, either from a scholarship or significant financial family backing in order to survive in the profession long enough to carve out a career. For many, the maths simply does not add up. Given these obstacles, those from a BAME or disadvantaged background may not have sufficient financial support, be interested enough, or able to enter the profession. And the profession will be far poorer for it.

In our last session, Malvika Jaganmohan, family barrister, spoke of her suicide attempt two years ago and called for greater openness around mental health and wellbeing within the Bar. The pandemic has placed never before seen strain on lawyers forced to practise from their own homes, while juggling domestic demands and childcare responsibilities. As a junior barrister, Malvika also spoke of her workload disappearing because of the pandemic, saying that between 23 March and 1 June 2020 she had five hearings in total, having previously been in court four or five times a week. She added that ‘at legal aid rates, this simply isn’t sustainable’. She noted that she lives with her parents and has received significant financial support. Without that backing, it would be enormously difficult to have survived financially through the pandemic. Other witnesses noted that measures put in place by the government have been inadequate to support large numbers of the profession through this most difficult of years. A number have reported re-thinking their career path in light of this.

I mentioned a love letter, however, and that is what we’ve seen over and over again. The evidence given by our witnesses has been detailed and incredibly moving. Legal aid work is often complex, urgent, emotionally draining. More than anything, it is socially vital. The rule of law is not something that we can have for free. It is a choice that we make as a society: either we decide to enshrine these values or we don’t. If we decide that we do, there is a cost. It is a small cost comparatively and it is a cost more than worth paying. We need good, compassionate people; not just today but coming through the system into the future. And we need to fix the system for them so that they can carry on with this work, because society needs it.

Our next session on 28 January will focus on the experiences of those practising at the publicly funded Bar. Confirmed speakers include Prof Jo Delahunty QC, Marina Sergides, Michael Etienne, Dr S Chelvan, Natasha Shotunde, David Lammy MP and Adam Wagner.