Legal aid: slim pickings on the gravy train for fat cats
It's perhaps not the most auspicious of starts to my first blog in a few months that it should begin with a health warning. But this one does: beware the lawyer called Stuart who starts pretending that he knows something about life at the sharper end of our justice system.
But all is not well in the legal profession and it's a serious issue that affects us all. As part of the Government's austerity measures, the budget for legal aid in civil cases is being cut by £350 million.
Legal aid will be abolished for debt and welfare claims, 40% of housing claims, immigration (unless the applicant is in custody), employment, most education cases, clinical negligence and divorce and family cases except where there is physical domestic violence.
Critics say that it's a false economy. The cuts affect the most vulnerable in society and leaving the problems unsolved simply results in greater costs down the line. For example, Pete Lowen, the Chief Executive of the Birmingham Law Centre, contrasts the average aggregate cost of evicting a family - £34,000 - with the £174 cost of the same family getting 9.5 hours of advice under the current legal aid regime. See page 5 of this pdf for more from Pete.
The Government responds by saying that the legal aid budget is out of control. To quote Ken Clarke, the current Secretary of State for Justice: "We spend more on legal aid than almost anywhere else in the world. France spends £3 per head of the population; Germany £5; New Zealand, with a comparable legal system, spends £8. In England and Wales, we spend a staggering £38 per person." The cuts are coming from a budget which currently tops £2 billion.
It strikes me that your political point of view, or your thinking about what is or isn't just or fair or, indeed, your personal experience (if any) of the justice system may well dictate whether you think the cuts a necessary evil or something far worse.
One of the arguments that often rears its head is that the legal aid system makes lawyers rich. The words "fat", "cat", "gravy" and "train" are nearly always used. The suggestion being that the cuts will simply curtail the excessive fee income of lawyers.
Whilst it is certainly true that a number of leading QCs seem to make a good living out of publicly-funded work, the fat cat argument is actually just not true, at least so far as the £25,000 average salary legal aid solicitors earn is concerned.
To put it another way, if legal aid lawyers are fat cats living it up on the public purse, then so are our teachers, town planners, probation offices, social workers, prison officers and sewage plant workers, all of whose average earnings exceed the £25,000 figure.
At a time when the cost of paying the interest on our national debt is over £40 billion a year, I am persuaded by the need for the government to take some tough decisions. I am far less persuaded that the proposed changes to legal aid are the right thing to do, but then I'm a lawyer and I would say that, wouldn't I?