UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove has a novel idea for expanding justice. But, says Maria Theodoulou, lawyers have a different view.
Lawyers should work for free to help access to justice, says the new UK justice secretary enterlinedesign
Michael Gove may have just assumed the role of Secretary of State for Justice in the UK at the beginning of May, yet he has already managed to stir up conflict between the Conservative government and lawyers across the country. In his first speech as Justice Secretary, given earlier this week, Gove launched a tirade against law firms, demanding that so-called ‘wealthy lawyers’ provide more hours of free legal aid, and arguing that the current amount of pro-bono work provided each year does not go far enough. The Justice Secretary further claimed that Britain has developed a ‘two-nation’ justice system, suggesting that only the wealthy receive the ‘gold standard’ of British legal services (from equally wealthy lawyers), whilst the poorer people in society are not afforded sufficient legal aid.
Michael Gove is living in a dream world! Who are these rich lawyers? They're certainly not the ones doing the legal aid work who incidentally have been providing unpaid, top quality work for years. These are lawyers who take pride in the legal profession and continue to maintain the same high standards of service for all clients, despite the cuts. Gove’s cynical view of lawyers neglects to consider the fact that many leading law firms continue to devote considerable amounts of time each year to pro bono work. Moreover, it must be remembered that the harsh legal aid cuts were made by the Coalition during the last Parliament. As part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishing of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), the implementation of these cuts was overseen by Gove’s own predecessor and fellow Conservative, Chris Grayling.
The consequences of LASPO have been hugely significant. Since the introduction of the Act, approximately 400,000 fewer people per year have been able to access legal aid. In spite of this measurable decline in access to legal aid, the Government is planning further cuts. Gove confirmed only earlier this month that legal aid fees for criminal solicitors will be cut by 8.75 per cent. It is, therefore, highly hypocritical that Gove is urging lawyers to invest in ‘the roots’ of the legal system with more pro bono work, when he himself is intent on supporting cuts which will help to completely sever the roots of justice.
A right to be paid
Lawyers should be paid for their work. Which other professions are obliged to work for free? What Michael Gove is really proposing is a stealth tax for lawyers! Many law firms who are already dedicated to providing a certain amount of pro bono legal aid work each year are now being pushed to drastically increase these hours. This can have a severe impact on the profit margins of these firms, as fee earning lawyers will be forced to reduce the number of cases they are able to take on. What is more, Gove’s proposal fails to account for the reality that not all lawyers are qualified to act in the most underfunded areas of law, such as family and employment. It is truly disconcerting to think that Gove considers his solution to be practical and fair.
It is understandable that improving access to free legal aid requires a greater budget. However, compelling lawyers to provide more hours of pro bono legal aid - and therefore putting the financial stability of law firms at risk - is simply not the answer. The problem lies with the many inefficiencies in the current criminal justice system, which cause huge amounts of public money to be wasted every year. Rather than shifting the blame for poor access to justice onto lawyers and pushing forward with yet more legal aid cuts in order to save money, the government should be focused on reassessing the whole legal system, making sure that processes at the courts, prisons and police stations are as cost-effective and efficient as possible.