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Legal aid remuneration is unfair and deters lawyers from building a career, Westminster inquiry hears

Parliamentarians in the Westminster Commission into the Sustainability of Legal Aid heard evidence from family law practitioners on 19 November, including from Lorraine Green an associate solicitor at Miles and Partners who specialises in cases involving children, care proceedings, adoption and domestic abuse.

Questioned by MP Andy Slaughter and Chris Minnoch, CEO of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Lorraine was described as ‘eloquent’ as she drew on her 25 years of experience to highlight key problem areas which included:

  • the legal aid rates have not changed since 2013 has not kept pace with inflation; and
  • fixed fees for cases involving children is calculated on two rates at either 40 hours or 70 hours, which means that any work done over the 40th hour but under the 70th hour is effectively not paid for.

She also highlighted the unremunerated work that publicly funded lawyers often find themselves doing which goes beyond legal representation: “We might want to help them find a parenting course, or find a children’s centre where they can spend time with other children, or go on a domestic abuse course. These things do not require legal training but are part and parcel of the work we have to do to help our clients.”

Answering a question about litigants in person, she explained how it was not uncommon to find herself as the only legally-qualified person apart from the judge when she was representing a child in a case where both parents were representing themselves.  “It is the applicant who is supposed to prepare the court bundle, the statement of issues, and the chronology. If they are not legally trained then they will do their best, but it falls to the publicly-funded lawyer to fill those gaps and support the judge.”

As reported in The Law Society Gazette, Lorraine also highlighted the need to attract and retain more male black and ethnic minority solicitors into family legal aid work and onto the children’s law panel.  She highlighted how “teenagers are coming through the system who might be involved in gangs or are beyond their parents’ control. Sometimes it is helpful for them to have a male role model, of their background, because they may be able to more relate to them.”

She emphasised that while it was possible to attract people to jobs as paralegals, the low level of remuneration and the limited scope to increase salaries creates a huge incentive for young lawyers to move out of legal aid funded work and into private family law – or even out of legal practice – to have a better chance of paying off their education debts and obtaining the life they wish for.

Lorraine described being a legal aid lawyer as a vocation: “It is not a 9-5 job, it’s a vocation. To sustain the level of fees required, fee-earners have to really commit to the work. Achieving a good work-life balance is challenging” and explained that “Whilst it may be possible to recruit people, it is difficult to retain them.”

The commission also heard evidence from solicitor Jenny Beck, co-founder of family practice Beck Fitzgerald, Malvika Jaganmohan, a barrister at St Ives Chambers, Cyrus Larizadeh QC, chair of the Family Law Bar Association and Cris McCurley, a partner at north-east firm Ben Hoare Bell.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.