I wanted to say something about the proposed changes to legal aid funding for barristers. Now, before I begin I should explain that the post title above is not intended to be derogatory in any way to the many talented and hard-working lawyers who still provide a legal aid service (or, indeed, to our primate cousins). Instead, it is meant as a stark warning of the ultimate effect of these changes.
I have already mentioned here the excellent post of Lucy Reed at Pink Tape, in which she estimates that the proposals will result in cuts to barristers remuneration for family work (excluding public law work) "equating to approximate hourly rates of £27 - £35 per hour before expenses, which as a rule of thumb are likely to amount to 30% and tax". So, by my estimation, they will effectively be paid between about £19 and about £25 per hour gross of tax and National Insurance. Now, I don't know how many 'chargeable hours' the average legal aid family law barrister does each year, but I doubt that it would exceed 1000, in which case they would receive a maximum of £25,000 per annum. This, of course, assumes that they do no privately-funded work, as it should - why should private clients subsidise legal aid clients beyond the tax that they pay? So, is £25,000 per annum reasonable remuneration for someone who has gone to enormous effort and great expense (Lucy Reed estimates £40,000 on average) to train as a barrister? No, of course it is not. The inevitable result will be that many highly experienced barristers will stop doing the work, and many talented people entering the profession will look elsewhere for their specialism.
Of course, the LSC expect that much of the advocacy work now done by counsel will be done by solicitors, but there are at least three points against this: Firstly, whilst there are many talented solicitor-advocates, they are surely not, on average, as highly trained or skilled as the 'average' barrister, so quality of representation will inevitably diminish, especially in the more complex cases. Secondly, the LSC assumes that solicitors will want to do this work - this may be so during a time of recession, but surely once the recession is over then there will be a return to the exodus of firms from legal aid work, resulting in far less choice for members of the public. Thirdly, the LSC has long envisioned fewer but larger firms doing legal aid work, taking advantage of economies of scale - this will not just mean less choice but also, as Lucy points out, may actually mean that there are insufficient legal aid firms in a particular area to represent all the parties to a particular matter, meaning that some parties will have to travel large distances to seek representation.
All in all, another disaster for those in most need of high-quality representation.