Grayling’s cuts: is a solution in the universities?

By Tom Laidlaw

As I finish another year of judging the entries to the AG's Student Pro Bono Awards I am, as I have been for the last four years, amazed and heartened by the ingenuity and dedication of students, staff and law schools in delivering legal services to their local populations.

This year, the Awards took place against the backdrop of all of the cuts to legal aid and the changes to legal services being wrought by those cuts and the arrival of ABSs. This got me to thinking: what if the strikes and demonstrations and newspaper column inches DON'T stop the cuts? Where do we go from there? Do the various actors in the justice system pack up and go home to leave the victims, defendants, witnesses and court staff to just get on with it as best they can?

Or does someone sit down and think – how can we deliver effective representation and support to those who need it, in particular by providing them with access to a system that still uses quality independent advocates within the proposed fee structure?

This led me to ask another question aimed at criminal barristers and those who want to join the criminal Bar?

What is it that MOST excites you about the job you do?

  • Is it the chance to be an effective advocate and represent your client's interests in court?
  • Or is it the chance to be independent and manage your own time, resources and take on the work that you want to do?

I suspect it is the former because the business reality of the Bar doesn't hit home for many wannabe barristers until they become one and have to start keeping receipts, find an accountant to do their tax returns, register for VAT and all the other boring minutiae that goes into being self-employed.

So here's an idea – stop being self-employed and give up a level of autonomy to do what you love – stand on your feet in court and talk for a living.

"Well," I hear you say, "that's all fine and dandy but legal aid practices are going to the wall and the Lord Chancellor wants to cull almost 1000 firms with these proposed cuts, so who am I going to work for?"

This is where universities and law schools could come into the picture.

Law Schools – why not copy the Northumbria Qualification Degree but instead of qualifying as a solicitor, you qualify as a barrister?

The university employs qualified advocates who train future barristers AND provide advocacy for legal aid clients. Those barristers are employed by an ABS to deliver advocacy services and students, once they move to the “pupillage” stage they also provide advocacy services through the ABS and learn their trade craft.

Could the structure be taken further and the ABS be set up as a charity with all of the possible tax benefits that it could bring? You could argue that such an organization would satisfy any one of three charitable purposes under the Charities Act 2006 by delivering effective representation and access to justice:

  • the advancement of education;
  • the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity; or
  • the relief of those in need because of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage

It’s some food for thought.

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